Storming the bastion

China’s women’s singles, so long impregnable, has begun to crack under a combined assault

There is an old evolutionary theory used to explain why the hare runs faster than the fox – the fox is running for its food, while the hare is running for its life.

A similar theory is used to explain why the Chinese are so far ahead of everybody else in badminton. ‘Perform or perish’ is a motto that has served them well over the decades.

In some events, like the women’s singles, the Chinese hares have been outrunning the field for the last decade. They have been so swift that nobody assumed they could be caught. Just as the most important event of their lives approaches, however, the foxes have begun to nip at their backsides.

Not since Camilla Martin in the early years of this decade has the Rest of the World thrown up such a strong challenge to the Chinese – in the form of 28-year-old Dane Tine Rasmussen. But perhaps not even her idol Camilla Martin, who won the World Championships at Copenhagen beating Gong Ruina of China – not even Camilla must have caused such consternation in their flanks. Rasmussen’s string of victories against the top Chinese has thrown up the question – has the Wall begun to Fall?

The women’s singles and doubles have been important strongholds for China. With two gold medals assured in any tournament, they have been able to focus on the other events. The only interruption to their reign at the All England since 1997 has been in 2002, when Camilla Martin took the title. Their grip has been just as pronounced in the World Championships.

The All England this year, on the other hand, was a prolonged nightmare. Three-time champion Xie Xingfang fell in the first round, as did second seed Zhang Ning, prompting their veteran coach, Li Zhifeng, to say grimly that it was “their worst result in recent times”. World Champion Zhu Lin was knocked out in the quarters by Rasmussen – leaving a youngster, Lu Lan, to carry their hopes into the final, which she lost.

And within a month, at the India Open in Hyderabad, the Chinese again failed to secure gold, Lu Lan losing the final to Hong Kong’s Zhou Mi.

What is it that has gone wrong?

Rasmussen, a thoughtful, articulate six-footer, thinks it has been mental more than anything else. ”There are no secrets,” she told this correspondent at the All England. ”Earlier, we used to think we had to play perfect all the time to beat them, but now I’ve realised that one can make mistakes and still beat them. You only need to play well, to keep within distance, and win every other point. It’s a matter of confidence. Now, I know that if I play enough good rallies, I can beat them.”

Rasmussen plays a fearless game, relentlessly attacking and giving the Chinese a taste of their own medicine. At the All England final she showed marvelous composure under pressure, going for the lines even when the momentum had begun to shift – it is this attitude that had long deserted other women’s players. “Earlier, they started 4-5 points ahead just because they were Chinese. But now we don’t give them that advantage,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen believes it was her victory at the Japan Open last year – when she beat all the top Chinese — that opened the floodgates. A sprightly Malaysian named Wong Mew Choo next did the unthinkable, by winning the China Open on their home turf! The two wins had suddenly created a buzz, and Rasmussen rode that wave to her first All England title.

Apart from Rasmussen and Wong Mew Choo, three Hong Kong players – two of them of Chinese origin – have had their sights on the Chinese. Zhou Mi, former All England champion from China, and Wang Chen moved to Hong Kong after they felt they were being sidelined, and they have carried with them experience of the Chinese system.

China’s women are led by 2004 Olympics gold medalist Zhang Ning (32) and two-time World Champion Xie Xingfang (27). Next in line are Zhu Lin (23), who won her first World Championships in August last year, and the relative newcomer Lu Lan (20). So tight has their grip been that the youngest of the four, Lu Lan, was a world top-5 player in 2006 – when she was just 19!

Now, with the Olympics coming up, the management is in a bit of a muddle. Zhang Ning has done little of note since winning the last Olympics. Uncharacteristically, though, they have decided to stick with her, even though she represents the past more than the future. In any other era, she would have disappeared in the wink of an eye. But with the Olympics coming, and with at least five other players capable of upsetting them, they need her to act as spoiler. She might not have won a lot of tournaments, but she has been consistent. In the wake of shaky performances from their youngsters, China has had to accommodate the veteran.

With Xie Xingfang the world no.1 and Zhang the no.2, China’s problem is the third slot. A country is allowed three players for each event at the Olympics if they are in the top four of the world rankings. A contest is on for the no.3 slot between Zhu Lin and Lu Lan – Zhu looked a good bet for the Beijing gold when she won the World Championships last year, but has suffered a few reverses since then. Lu Lan, on the other hand, surged to finals at the All England and India Open, and now looks to have pipped the World Champion.

So what does Beijing hold? Rasmussen is undoubtedly the favourite. But with three players in the draw, China will be able to give their girls the advantage – in the form of walkovers or pre-decided matches. “I think they’ll be back,” said Rasmussen, asked if the Chinese grip was loosening. “But the others have started believing in themselves.”

BOX

(Cast of Characters)

Zhang Ning: The ‘Big Sister’ to the rest of the Chinese team. She had contemplated quitting the sport in 2002 but was persuaded to stay back by chief coach Li Yongbo. She repaid the faith by winning the World Championships the next year, and the Athens Olympics gold in 2004.

Xie Xingfang: The most consistent player over the last five years. Xingfang won three All England and two World Championships titles in a magic streak between 2004 and 2007. She and men’s World Champion Lin Dan are a pair, with both ranked no.1 and winning titles at several events, including the World Championships of 2006.

Tine Rasmussen: Burst the Chinese bubble at the Japan Open in 2007 and has since become their nemesis. Tall, with broad shoulders and a masculine style of playing, the Dane is friendly off the court. Has a degree in cosmetology. Admits she peaked late “to concentrate on studies, but has no regrets because one needs a life outside badminton”.

Zhu Lin: Has had a meteoric rise, but has she conceded ground to young compatriot Lu Lan? From Shanghai, she has urban tastes, loves shopping and is a lover of Japanese food.

(Published: April 2008, All Sports magazine)

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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