Zhengming: Style and Substance

A profile I did on the World Junior Champion for worldbadminton.net:

wang-zhenming-action1
SELDOM do style and power come in one package. Style and its attendant qualities – grace, skill, delicacy, deftness – are reckoned to be exclusive of the other qualities expected in an athlete: power, toughness, stamina. Few players have had an equal measure of both. Finn Kobbero, one of the greatest of Denmark’s players, was reputedly the most stylish of his time, but he did not have the qualities of toughness and stamina that his more famous compatriot, Erland Kops, did. Kobbero was often recalled as the best player never to have won the All England. Kops, on the other hand, despite his almost mechanical style of playing, set the record for the most number of men’s singles titles at the All England: seven, before he was eclipsed by Rudy Hartono.

In Wang Zhengming, China seems to have unearthed a gem that has equal measures of both style and power. The youngster won the World Junior Championship at Pune in November, thus adding the world crown to the Asian Junior title that he held. But it was the manner of his victory at Pune that pleased connoisseurs of the sport.

Moving with fluidity, displaying an attractive variety of strokes, and yet smashing with great power, Zhengming might just be the next big thing in international badminton. He moves lightly, rather like a dancer, and gets into position early. He displays a fine touch, and the arcs that his racquet describe suggest an artist with his paintbrush. His jump smash is a powerful weapon, and he was at his fearsome best in the first game of his semifinal against Guru Sai Dutt, where he decimated the Indian’s defence with his searing smashes.

Of course, a world junior title does not immediately qualify him as a top player on the senior circuit, but the signs are there. As China’s best young player, he has the system on his side, and its legacy of turning out world champions.

That Zhengming is the product of such a system is hard to imagine. The Chinese system regularly throws up flawless, superfit athletes, but few with an extravagance of style and grace. Lin Dan and his predecessors, Zhao Jianhua and Yang Yang, are spectacular specimens and stylish in their own way, but did not have that easy grace that the young prodigy possesses.

Having started playing at 10, Zhengming was interested in several other sports such as football and basketball, but eventually decided to stick with badminton after he began winning junior competitions. He now trains for five to six hours each day at the national academy for juniors on Qing Huang Dao island. It has been two years since he moved to the academy, and he misses his family. “I’m very homesick,” he admits, “but I call them often or keep in touch through the internet.”

At the team event of the World Juniors, Wang lost the only match he played – against Jen Hao Hsu of Chinese Taipei in three games. In all the following matches, Gao Huan was preferred ahead of him. And yet, in the individual event, Wang was a contrast to the top-seeded Gao – who was made to sweat in two of his matches. Wang, seeded 3/ 4, cruised through, briefly troubled only in the second game of the semifinal, where his smash deserted him. In the final, he roundly thrashed Gao, who had simply no answers to his variety and skill. Whatever Gao has, Wang has in greater measure: his defence is excellent, and he can create points with lesser effort than his compatriot.

Whether Wang will eventually move to a higher league is hard to tell. At the moment, though, his success augurs well for the future, for it tells us style has as much place in the international game as power, speed and the other elements of the game.

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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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