That the two mixed doubles pairs had played each other so frequently in finals was itself a statement of how dominant they were over the rest of the field; yet, Zheng and Huang’s overwhelming superiority in finals was a huge barrier for any team to surmount.
In the event, the challengers did pull off a tight victory, 21-17 17-21 21-19, to finally emerge out of the shadows of their illustrious compatriots. They have now established an identity independent of Zheng and Huang, as Olympic gold medallists. While their quality has never been in doubt, their journey from now will be closely followed. Can they push on to greater heights?
As for Zheng and Huang, how much will they rue the missed opportunity? In the last full season, they had achieved an unprecedented ‘Super Grand Slam’ – winning all three Super 1000 events, the TOTAL BWF World Championships, and the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals. They were within a hair’s breadth of winning the Olympic gold and becoming badminton immortals. They will now have to wait three more years for their next shot.
The final face-off between the two Chinese pairs wasn’t a surprise, but the fact they reached that stage without any missteps was. Pairs like Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti; Dechapol Puavaranukroh/Sapsiree Taerattanachai and Yuta Watanabe/Arisa Higashino had achieved intermittent success over them, and were reckoned to be capable of thwarting the Chinese, but they never got close.
Zheng and Huang did not drop a single game on their way to the final; their run included victories over Seo Seungjae/Chae Yujung, Jordan/Oktavianti and resurgent Hong Kong China duo Tang Chun Man/Tse Ying Suet. Wang/Huang did drop their opening game of their semifinal to Watanabe/Higashino before easing through in the next two. The long layoff from international badminton – none of the Chinese had played since the All England of March 2020 – had no discernible effect on their performance.
♦Apart from the Chinese, the two pairs that stood out were Watanabe/Higashino and Tang Chun Man/Tse Ying Suet. After a series of reverses for the hosts in all categories, it was left to Watanabe and Higashino to salvage a lone medal, which they did by winning their bronze medal playoff.
♦The Japanese had a Group C battle against Mathias Christiansen/Alexandra BØje before steamrolling Jordan/Oktavianti to top their group. Then followed their impressive quarterfinal over Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai, who were one of the top contenders for the title.
♦Tang/Tse have had modest results for many months now due to Tse’s struggles with injury, but in Tokyo they played with those worries behind them. The left-handed duo had two hard-fought wins in their group, over Chan Peng Soon/Goh Liu Ying and Mark Lamsfuss/Isabel Herttrich, and then eased into the semifinals beating Marcus Ellis/Lauren Smith in straight games.
♦Ellis/Smith too had a good tournament, topping Group B with three wins – including over Puavaranurkroh/Taerattanachai – before running out of steam against Tang/Tse in the quarterfinals.
♦Jordan/Oktavianti were the dark horses for gold, considering the level they displayed at All England 2020. Yet, the Indonesians were unable to find any rhythm, and continued with the sub-par performances they displayed at the Asian Leg.
♦Puaranukroh/Taerattanachai, who were strong contenders following their unbeaten run at the Asian Leg, started strongly as they had a straight-games win over a pair that has troubled them – France’s Thom Gicquel/Delphine Delrue – but the momentum evaporated during a loss to Ellis/Smith in their final group match. The quarterfinal too didn’t go their way, as they were eliminated in three games by Watanabe/Higashino.
♦Tokyo 2020 was disappointing too for Gicquel/Delrue, who lost two of their three group matches, both in straight games.