China became the most successful team, among men or women, with title No.14 in the Uber Cup.
Tied with Indonesia’s men – 13-time winners of the Thomas Cup – before the TOTAL BWF Thomas & Uber Cup Finals 2016 started in Kunshan on 15 May, China barely broke sweat in defending their crown. The 3-1 score in the final against Korea was a repeat of the 2014 result against Japan.
Unlike the Thomas Cup, which had a number of teams with nearly equal strength, the Uber Cup was easier to predict. China once again had a team with tremendous depth, talent and experience.
Japan, thanks to the success of their singles and doubles players over the last year, were talked of as possible threats to China at the start of the event. Japan head coach Park Joo Bong acknowledged his team’s status as title contenders during a pre-tournament press conference. “Compared to two years ago, we have a more balanced and stronger women’s team. Our Women’s Doubles pairs have beaten the top Chinese… the Chinese are our biggest opponents,” said Park.
China’s head coach, Li Yongbo, however laced his retort with some scepticism. Asked what he thought of Japan’s chances against China, Li said: “Japan should consider whether they can make the final against China.”
Li’s words in fact would turn out to be prophetic.
China had no trouble topping Group A, which included Denmark, Malaysia and Spain. Among the group matches that commanded attention was Wang Shixian against World champion Carolina Marin. As with many of their earlier matches, it was a bitterly-fought contest, with Wang throwing her arms up in relief after the final point was won: 19-21 21-18 21-19 in 87 minutes.
Malaysia put up some resistance against the rampant Chinese, with Vivian Hoo/Woon Khe Wei and Chow Mei Kuan/Lee Meng Yean taking a game off their opponents in the doubles.
The Malaysia-Spain Group A tie pitted the World champion Marin against World Junior champion Goh Jin Wei; their hotly-contested encounter suggests that the Malaysian is rapidly coming of age, and she could be one of the biggest stars in the not-too-distant future. Goh even had match point against Marin before the experienced Spaniard regained the initiative.
Meanwhile, Japan, in Group D, eased past Australia and Germany, but had trouble against India, only narrowly winning the tie 3-2. Singles star Nozomi Okuhara, looking a long way off from the confident player who had won back-to-back World Superseries titles in Dubai and Birmingham, was blown off court by Saina Nehwal 21-18 21-6. Japan recovered from 0-2 down to clinch the tie over India.
Korea, Chinese Taipei (Group B) and Thailand, Indonesia (Group C) qualified for the quarter-finals alongside China, Denmark, Japan and India.
The India-Thailand quarter-final was expected to go down the wire but the Indians muscled their way past the Thais. Ratchanok Intanon’s sublime form showed no sign of abating as she shot past Saina Nehwal in straight games, but the rest of the Thai team crumbled. India’s teenaged third singles player Ruthvika Shivani, ranked 119, took down Nitchaon Jindapol, ranked 94 places above her to ensure India’s semi-final entry. In the other half, Japan and Korea set themselves up for a semi-final clash.
There was much interest on how the two singles would go in the China-India semi-final. Saina Nehwal had her chances against Li Xuerui in the opening singles but Li was rock steady when it mattered; Wang Shixian then made it 2-0 over PV Sindhu. The doubles pair of Jwala Gutta/Sikki Reddy were thrashed by World champions Tian Qing/Zhao Yunlei, and China were in yet another final.
In the other semi-final, Japan were inexplicably flat against the Koreans. Okuhara’s nightmarish Uber Cup continued with a 47-minute loss to Sung Ji Hyun; both of Japan’s much-heralded doubles capitulated, and Korea were in with a chance at repeating their 2010 Uber Cup triumph.
China were never in danger of losing the final, but Korea came away with an important victory in the first doubles. Jung Kyung Eun/Shin Seung Chan’s defeat of Tian Qing/Zhao Yunlei in a tense three-game thriller ensured that Korea could look ahead to Rio with optimism. China, on the other hand, might feel some insecurity in their strongest department as the Rio Olympics gets closer. A hint to their direction after Rio came in the second doubles: the decision to throw in 19-year-old Chen Qingchen, alongside the marginally older but experienced Tang Yuanting, was a statement of their confidence in young blood and the possibility of a new star pairing after Rio.