Looking beyond the Chinese wall

Published in: All Sports magazine, August

The Chinese are not popular on the badminton circuit. They are perceived to be stand-offish and arrogant; their brusqueness attributed to the superiority they enjoy on court. At every event, the non-Chinese take great pleasure in a Chinese upset, and any failing is seen as a sign that the fort is developing cracks. Beijing 2008 will similarly be subject to intense media scrutiny in events that are Chinese bastions.

With eight gold medals out of 19 since badminton’s debut at Barcelona (1992), most sports fans will sigh at the prospect of them dominating the Games again.

But perhaps this time will be different. The women’s singles and doubles, for long their preserves, have had to contend with strong challenges, while the other events are more open than they have been in years.

They did make a strong statement at the Thomas and Uber Cup in May, but there were some unexpected hiccups. Malaysia in the men’s and The Netherlands in the women’s took them to the final rubber – and that’s not something that China is used to. Losses to their big-name players have fuelled optimism among the rest of the world.

Outside the heavyweights – Lin Dan and Bao Chunlai in the men’s singles, and defending champions Yang Wei/ Zhang Jiewen in the women’s doubles – it looks like a tight contest. Apart from world champion Lin Dan – who is Tiger Woods-like in consistency – you have to consider Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia and Asian champion Park Sung Hwan of South Korea. Chong Wei can match up to Lin Dan but not when everything rides on a given match – he has been known to crack under intense pressure, and that will be the case at Beijing.

Denmark’s Tine Rasmussen goes in as favourite in the women’s singles. She has beaten back the best that China has to offer, and she has done it under pressure.

If Rasmussen suffers an upset, the gold could go to one of the top three Chinese (Xie Xingfang, Zhang Ning and Lu Lan). The one outside contender is Malaysia’s Wong Mew Choo. The frail-looking girl is a tough competitor, a relentless retriever, and has even bearded the lion in its den – winning the prestigious China Open last November beating four top Chinese players. Then there is former Chinese international Zhou Mi, now with Hong Kong, who has had two big tournament wins this year. Look out too for the resurgent Indonesians, Yulianti and Adriyanti, who led their team to the Uber Cup final.

The Olympics will probably be the swansong of the Indonesian magician, Taufik Hidayat. The defending champion has had an inconsistent time since his famous triumph at Athens, when his mastery was at its highest. Badminton will be the poorer for his absence.

The men’s doubles and the mixed are the hardest to predict – with Indonesia, Korea and Malaysia and England capable of rivaling China. Spare a thought for Gao Ling, already a gold medalist at Sydney and Athens in the mixed, who will be going for her third gold.

India has two entrants – Anup Sridhar and Saina Nehwal. Saina has been in great form on the Asian circuit in June. She reached the semifinals at the Singapore Super Series and the quarterfinals at the Thailand Open – her victims included former top-10 player Yao Jie of France – but what was more heartening was that her losses have been to higher-ranked players in tough matches. Saina is now a dangerous prospect for every top player.

Anup and Saina have the ability to get into a medal-winning position; Anup can get tardy against lesser opponents but seems to get inspired against big-name players – world no.1 Lin Dan got a taste of that at the All England, when he lost the first game and looked a total mess before he recovered. The Olympics provides a good stage for players of Anup and Saina’s caliber, since the competition is not as intense as other major events, given the restriction on the number of participants from each country.

The big question to all badminton followers is this: having invested so much for Beijing, how will the Chinese management react in the event of a failing? That answer could decide the course of world badminton.

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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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