Friday, June 7, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
It was this pair that stood out for China as they reclaimed the title they had lost in Gold Coast. The manner of their victories reinforced their reputation as the best men’s doubles pair in the business in Major Events.
Consider their exploits over the last year – particularly at the Major Events. They reclaimed the Thomas Cup for China winning a crunch match in the final against Japan from two match points down – the victory reclaiming for China the Thomas Cup after a gap of two editions.
A few months later, playing at home in Nanjing at the World Championships, Li and Liu not only picked up their first world title, they prevented the possibility of the hosts having to be content with one title compared to Japan’s three. The straight-games victory in the high-pressure last match against Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda meant that China finished the event level with Japan at two gold medals each.
And then, to round off their spectacular year, they claimed China’s third crown at the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals in Guangzhou – once again beating Japan in the final.
Going into the Sudirman Cup, China were seen to be nearly unbeatable in mixed doubles (Zheng Siwei/Huang Yaqiong; Wang Yilyu/Huang Dongping), while in the other categories, they weren’t quite so invulnerable.
There was early trouble in their first tie against Malaysia, with Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik matching Li and Liu shot for shot. At the end of an exciting hour, however, it was Li and Liu who emerged, having saved match point, setting the tie up for China to complete a 5-0 rout.
Li and Liu featured in the three knockout round matches as well. Viktor Axelsen had put Denmark level at 1-all after beating Chen Long, and Denmark would have nursed hopes of Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen being able to challenge Li and Liu. However, their hopes were stamped out in 54 minutes – 21-18 21-16.
The semifinal against Thailand was never in doubt, with Li and Liu applying the finishing touches after their colleagues had put China 2-0 ahead.
Japan, in the final though, posed a different challenge. The Chinese were clear favourites only in the mixed doubles. The opening men’s doubles was critical for both teams. Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe had a 3-1 record over Li and Liu; notably, they had won their last encounter in Wuhan in straight games.
The first game was a sparkling affair with the Japanese able to keep Li and Liu away from imposing their frenetic pace upon it; but one mistake by the Japanese at 18-all was all it took for the Chinese to storm their way past their opponents.
The early setback proved devastating for Japan, for even the experienced Akane Yamaguchi and Kento Momota struggled to regain momentum. China had struck the first blow and Japan were fighting a rearguard battle. As unlikely as it would have seemed before the final, China wrapped up the tie 3-0.
Having won a succession of major team and individual titles, Li and Liu are, along with Zheng Siwei/Huang Yaqiong, the biggest weapons in China’s arsenal. Their journey to the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2019 in Basel and onwards to Tokyo 2020 will be interesting to watch.