Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player, who reached a career-high world ranking of No 32 in men’s doubles. Having recently retired from the highest level of the sport, Shlok Ramchandran is the Assistant coaching director at Synergy Badminton Academy, California. You can read the other pieces in his column, Shuttle Zone here.
For our next column, I wanted to look at mixed doubles as a discipline and what it takes to be good at this. As things stand, while India have top 20 players across the other four disciplines, mixed doubles is somewhat lagging behind. But instead of just explaining what goes into being a good mixed doubles pair, I thought it would be good to tackle this differently.
In a packed calendar like the one we have for badminton, matches come thick and fast. And in all that volume, it is perhaps easy to remember results, but not always easy to remember points. Every now and then though, there will a rally that will leave you speechless, one that will leave a serious impact on your brain and stay there.
So we will look at mixed doubles through the lens of this sensational exchange between China’s Zheng Si Wei/Huang Ya Qiong and Indonesia’s Rehan Naufal Kusharjanto/Lisa Ayu Kusumawati at the All England Open semifinal this year.
First, the video:
Decoding the best of the best
So, let’s try to decode this absolute monster of a rally between China’s Zheng/Huang, who, in my opinion, would go down as the greatest mixed doubles pair of all time, and Indonesia’s high risers Kusharjanto/Kusumawati.
Let’s begin with the service and receiving formation. Zheng/Huang are in red and the former is serving. Huang’s task, as the female player’s job is in this set-up, is just to get the net shot as early as possible, which would give them the early advantage of getting the attack early in the rally. She does not need to worry about any shot which passes her shoulders as Zheng is so close to her.
Huang has also completely blocked the straight net shot from her opponent and is baiting her counterpart to go crosscourt at the net. It’s comparatively a higher-risk shot than the straight net shot. Also, her counterpart will have to go through her if she plays a crosscourt net shot, and Huang is backing herself to intercept if the opponent plays a crosscourt net shot. The downside is that Zheng cannot pull out the wide low serve but doing that will expose his backhand rear corner.
Zheng, as expected, makes the quality low serve close to the T line to cut down the angles. Kusumawati, the female Indonesian player, has taken the shuttle high and can play the straight net shot but is vary of the pressure from Huang at the net. Kusharjanto is still close to his partner to cut down the midcourt shots, both male athletes are close to their respective partners as they want to keep the pressure and do not want to lift early in the rally and be in a defensive position.
Kusumawati decides to play the midcourt push due to the pressure created by Huang, which is precisely what the Chinese pair want. Zheng is in a great position here now; he can either drive straight or make the straight or crosscourt block and keep the pressure to get the attack.
Zheng plays the crosscourt block, but Kusumawati has read the play well. She is alert enough to watch Zheng’s racket position and anticipate the crosscourt block, making it hard for the Chinese pair to get on attack. Most teams would have lifted at this stage of the rally. However, this is where Kusumawati shows why she is regarded as one of the best female mixed doubles players on tour.
But Huang is again brilliant at the net to take the shuttle early from Kusumawati’s straight block and very smartly places the shuttle on the open right side of the Indonesian pair, and now the Chinese team is well ahead in the rally. Kushrajanto is late now and has only two options: lift or look to play the midcourt block.
The Indonesian plays the midcourt block, bug Zheng, who is the best at cutting out the midcourt blocks, maintains the pressure by staying close to his partner. He takes the shuttle high and makes the straight block.
The Indonesian pair has no option but to lift. Now, look at Zheng’s explosive speed; he has gone from midcourt to the backcourt within no time and made the vertical jump. And then, look at Huang’s position at the net... she knows Zheng is going to smash and knows the most likely shot will be a drive that she wants to intercept to maintain the attack when she expects Zheng to make the straight smash to Kushrajanto.
Then Zheng plays the double bluff and goes for the big crosscourt smash, which is surprising considering Huang’s frontcourt positioning. Here is where the female player has to be alert. As you can see in the still the moment Zheng plays the big crosscourt smash, Huang has moved her position to cover the vacant right front pocket.
Kusumawati is again super aware and alert and reads Huang’s movement towards the right side and wrong foots her with the defensive block on the left hand side. She charges ahead to the net but, look closely at the difference in the positioning between Kusharjanto and Zheng. Zheng is closer to his partner compared to Kusharjanto and looks more alert for midcourt push whereas Kushrajanto is a few inches behind and is looking for the lift.
Once again, Zheng and Huang are clear in their respective roles. The shuttle has crossed Huang’s shoulder, and she doesn’t even bother attempting because her focus is on the net shots, and she has complete trust in her partner to keep the pressure from the midcourt.
The Indonesian pair has no choice but to lift, yet again Zheng has the attack once again in the rally; Huang, this time, hasn’t completely committed herself to one side as she knows Zheng is going to smash the left hip of his male counterpart which is once again great awareness in the rally. But as you can see, there is only one pair on the attack in this rally: the Chinese pair.
From this point on, the rally descends into utter chaos as Kusumawati meets with the barrage from the Chinese side seated on the court. It is all just reflex and luck at this point. In the end, the shuttle goes long from the Indonesian when Zheng/Huang had no chance of getting it back. A few inches and the Indonesian pair would have won the point, and fortune certainly favoured Zheng. Just another proof that in elite sport too, luck certainly plays a part.
The nuances of mixed doubles
Let’s look at one of the stills from Sai Pratheek/Tanisha Crasto’s match at the Orleans Open 2023 against Malaysian’s Chen Tang Jie/Toh Ee Wei.
The big difference for me is Crasto’s frontcourt positioning in Pratheek’s serve formation, she is bang in the center which gives her Malaysian female counterpart a free straight net shot, but it does give Pratheek the option of the wide serve if needed.
In this still, Tanisha has stepped in well after an excellent defensive shot from Pratheek, she then goes on to play a good quality crosscourt net shot. But in this rally, Pratheek has to step in a bit more and not worry too much about the lift. In this instance he does, Toh scrambles in. Tanisha is a bit too late to kill that off. Had Pratheek stepped in, he would have had a better chance to finish the rally.
Movement patterns for the male shuttler
The most significant difference between men’s doubles and mixed doubles for the male athlete is the movement after the block; in men’s doubles, he often has to move forwards after the union. In contrast, in mixed doubles, the female shuttler charges in after the block in conventional mixed doubles.
Here’s a look at a traditional mixed doubles counter-attacking sequence play by Japanese pair Yamashita/Shinoya (blue) against Kim/Jeong (black) at the German Open recently.
The Japanese pair is in defence early in the rally, and Yamashita plays the defensive block on Kim’s smash. Had it been men’s doubles, Yamashita would have moved toward the net. However, because they’re playing the traditional mixed doubles formation, Shinoya moves toward the net and eventually wins the point with her interception.
This time Korea’s Kim shows an example of a men/women’s doubles movement where he has played the block and taken the initiative to move towards the net. Some pairs switch up their movements from time to time. It is something Kim/Jeong do a lot as Jeong is a gun of a women’s doubles player who can hold her own from the back of the court. This gives Kim the luxury of taking some chances by moving into the net. Not a lot of men in mixed doubles pairs have that luxury, since very few female athletes dictate terms from the back of the court in this discipline.
Role clarity is key
As you can see in the stills above, clarifying roles in the partnership is vital for any mixed doubles combination. For the female athlete, it has to be a net game and aggressive movement towards the net to create chaos from the front court, which will create openings for the male athlete.
The female athlete, in my doubt, is the absolute hero of any mixed doubles partnership as she can influence the game more than the male shuttler.
The male athlete in the combination needs to be physically explosive and have good court coverage; hence you will see singles players playing good mixed doubles than men’s doubles; it’s an added advantage if the male athlete has a strong backcourt game with variations as he is going to be influencing the game more from the back of the court.
The key for both athletes in the combination is finding the blocks to turn defense into attack and successfully executing counter-attacking scenarios.
What of India?
I was going through the Sudirman Cup 2023 squads; Indonesia have decided to send three pairs, Malaysia has named four teams in their squad, while India have announced one pair: Sai Pratheek/ Tanisha Crasto. We do have Ashwini Ponnappa in the squad who has plenty of mixed doubles experience with Satwiksairaj. But Satwik hasn’t played any mixed doubles since 2021. Ishaan Bhatnagar’s unfortunate injury has paved the way for a new combination of Prateek/Tanisha, who are going into the tournament on the back of minimal tournament time.
In recent weeks, Sikki Reddy and Rohan Kapoor are showing signs of being competitive, with their run at Asia Championships being impressive.
But at this point India have very little bench strength in mixed doubles.
Sai Pratheek, though, has the physical profile to be a high-quality mixed doubles player but relies too much on his drives and has to work on adding more blocks to his game. Bhatnagar, currently injured, has the skills and touch but doesn’t have the physical profile yet, something he can work on during rehabilitation.
Hariharan Amsakarunan again fits the profile with his high-intensity backcourt game. Chaynit Joshi, with his height and court coverage, is an exciting option but has yet to have the power to influence games. Dhruv Rawat, HV Nitin, and Navneet Bokka all have suitable profiles and have been around for a while but have yet to take the next step.
Tanisha Crasto is the best prospect and ticks all the boxes, but she has to pick one event at some point in time. Priya Devi is also up there and could be groomed with the right partner.
Ritika Thakker, Simran Singhi, Shruti Mishra, Kavya Gupta, and Khushi Gupta are players who haven’t taken the next step in women’s doubles. Some of them could be moved to mixed doubles full-time, and be groomed for the next Olympic cycle.
It is crucial that India creates a core team of 6-8 full-time mixed doubles pairs under a mixed doubles coaching team and set up an 18-month long-term development program; we have to start encouraging players to focus only on one event, but that can only happen if these pairs are training under one roof regularly and are funded to play at least ten tournaments a year with specific targets. Maybe in a couple of years we might have three mixed doubles pairs and even bench strength as the 2025 Sudirman Cup comes along.
Screenshots in the article courtesy BWF TV YouTube channel and are used solely for illustrating some of the technical points. The markings are done by the author to add clarity.
Also read: A look at what makes doubles badminton a completely different beast from singles