ALL ENGLAND 2012 Preview Part 2 – Memorable for the right reasons

Our preview specialist, Aaron Wong, offers readers a sequel to last year’s All England article explaining why this is still the closest there is to the perfect tournament.  In part […]

Our specialist, Aaron Wong, offers readers a sequel to last year’s All England article explaining why this is still the closest there is to the perfect tournament.  In part 2, he underlines the importance of idealism and shines a spotlight on mixed doubles as England is where the art of it is properly appreciated by spectators.

By Aaron Wong, Badzine Correspondent.  Photos: Badmintonphoto

A Chinese with a Spanish name

Another measure of being the best tournament is a result of what almost doesn’t happen at the but appears prevalent elsewhere.  Though Chinese players may be unfamiliar with the English phrase No way, José!, they are well acquainted with this mindset when their compatriots become opponents on the courts of the All England.  Fortunately, this leads to spectators not being cheated out of watching true competition.

Compared with other national teams, over recent years, there has been a noticeable incidence of walkovers when Chinese comrades are pitted against one another in the latter half of major tournaments.  Rife on the Internet has been speculation that the official claims of injury or illness are fiction.  It is true, however, that the 2011 competition calendar was more jam-packed with majors and most players felt the toll of extended physical exertion in the mass quest towards qualification for the London Olympics.

Ask any of them.  The entrenched ideology of Chinese players and coaches, born of their state system, is a team-first ethic where it matters not who is victorious as long as the glory ultimately belongs to China and such rhetoric makes it hard to disbelieve there is not more than meets the eye to the number of unfinished matches.  But the All England is special, and although it is not immune to the possibility of such effects, the Chinese have kept it to minimum of, perhaps, one.  Only once since 1991, the decade marking the emergence of Chinese dominance in badminton, has there been a questionable All England all-Chinese final.

This is testament to the high esteem and respect in which the All England is held and how coveted the title is.  So much so, that there is clearly some individual ambition creep evident in Chinese players.  A good example of this is Xie Xingfang (pictured right).  Having already earned her All England at the expense of Zhang Ning in 2004, Xie again denied Zhang in the final a year later, this time in three games of 11 points.  There was no “one for me, one for you” attitude or team orders on the grounds of sentimentality given it was Zhang’s third All England final.  Never to be crowned All England singles queen, Zhang was left bereft of the full set of the holy badminton trinity, despite already having achieved Olympic and World Championship glories.  (Two years later, in case of cosmic poetic justice, Zhang would return the favour and deny Xie the trinity too by snatching Olympic gold again in a three-game thriller as well.)

Facts, figures & one thing fishy

China’s women’s doubles combination Yang Wei / Zhang Jiewen contributed the only unplayed All England final in the last two decades.  Similarly to Zhang Ning, they too were Olympic and World Champions who came away All England bridesmaids, losing each of the four times to compatriot adversaries, and enduring a heartbreaking 23-25 defeat in the deciding game of the last of these finals in 2008.

There were seven all-Chinese finals from 1991 to 2000, and sixteen from 2001 to 2010.  Of the statistics readily available, at least four finals from this total went to extra points in the final game, and six matches ran into a deciding game.  Such has been the desire to become All England champion that Chinese would work hard against Chinese with a single exception.

Sadly for sports, a question mark hangs over the 2008 All England men’s singles final which was won 22-20, 25-23, when Chen Jin defeated then world number 1 Lin Dan (pictured left) who was already an All England champion.  Despite what appears to be a tight score, it was seen by many to be a gift of much-needed Olympic qualification points to Chen to enable him to re-enter the top four in the world, thereby allowing China another Olympic medal hopeful.

The salient point here is that only one blight stands out in the past twenty one years of the All England and long may sporting idealism hold true (even though Chen Jin is once again only slightly outside the top four in an Olympic year and may again end up with only Lin Dan standing between him and the points he needs).

Art of Mixed Doubles: From Symbiosis to Synergy

Who makes the most difference in mixed doubles?  Is it the man with his more powerful smash or the woman who puts away the shuttle at the net?  Mixed doubles is near impossible to explain how to play effectively in a few words (you end up oversimplifying it that way) and therein lies the appeal of watching the top players evolve its strategy.

It still starts off with the woman stooped in front of the man when he serves but that’s the only major thing in common today’s mixed doubles has with the way it used to be played at the highest level prior to the 1990s.

During the noughties, the alpha female was in vogue.  Her brains at designing strategy, in the outstanding examples of Gao Ling and Zhang Yawen, combined with his brawn, meant these ladies proved themselves successful with more than one partner and led to All England gold.

A variation on the theme was the calm and steady woman, personified best by Korea’s Ra Kyung Min.  She counter-balanced the adrenalin of her partner Kim Dong Moon.  Ladies soon became at ease in the front as well as rear courts, giving rise to a matter-of-fact-ness and more like level doubles, which could only have derived from the easy, graceful style of Indonesians and illustrated by Lilyana Natsir (pictured above with Tantowi Ahmad) and Vita Marissa after the Ra Kyung Min era.

Mixed doubles innovation next led to the taller girl than boy in the cases of the three world number ones at different short stages since the last Olympics of Korea’s Lee/Lee, Poland’s Zieba/Mateusiak (pictured left), and Denmark’s Rytter-Juhl/Laybourn.  In short, strategies have innovated from her in front to her at the back, until we now arrive at a stage where the man, sensing the half opportunity at the front, moves in swiftly to finish off the point with such forceful intention that it leaves opponents stunned and stuck for a Plan B, a strategy parlayed to profit by the very exciting current world number 3 Danes Christinna Pedersen / Joachim Fisher-Nielsen.

It’s important and exciting to keep taking mixed doubles strategy forward and not take it backwards.  Symbiosis, where a man and woman simply lived on court, has become synergy.  It is not like level doubles, it is truly stirred and shaken in its own way as opposed to oil and water in glass.

Memorable for all the right reasons

British broadcaster and former All England finalist Gillian Clark (pictured) agrees about how special and memorable this tournament is.

“I (was) given as a birthday present a ticket to watch the 1976 All England finals,” recounts Clark. “That was the year Gillian Gilks won the triple – WS, WD & XD.  After the finals, I ran down to courtside and managed to get her autograph on the official programme, which I still have.  Little did I know that 7 years later, in 1983, Gillian Gilks and I would be playing together and actually be the number one seeds in the women’s doubles at the All England Championships at Wembley.”

Preserving the mystique and prestige of the All England is important.  Badminton needs this perfect ideal of untarnished competition for all players to believe in and aspire to.

Uniquely and memorably, right now there is a British badminton holy trinity (World Championship, All England, and Olympics) for the taking.

Click here to read Part I of Aaron’s All England 2012 preview

If you are coming for the All England Championships, or whenever you visit Birmingham, try Badzine’s partner hotel, the City Nites Apartments. Offering fully-serviced apartments, it is a stylish setting for long or short-term business people and visitors, and a great place to stay during the All England Championships.

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Aaron Wong

About Aaron Wong

Aaron Wong only ever coveted badminton's coolest shot - a reverse backhand clear. He is renowned for two other things: 1) Writing tournament previews that adjust the focus between the panorama of the sport's progress, down to the microscopic level of explaining the striking characteristics of players; 2) Dozing off during men's doubles at the London Olympic Games. Contact him at: aaron @