London is the city of the moment. In badminton, Li Xuerui of China is the woman of the moment heading into the Olympics week. At the beginning of the year, it would not have been the name most would have expected to blossom. Our preview specialist, Aaron Wong, elaborates on what else is exciting precisely because it is unexpected.
By Aaron Wong, Badzine Correspondent. Photos: Badmintonphoto
Thirteen in serious contention
All the singles ladies put up your hands! There are forty-six in contention for the women’s singles medals at these Olympic Games but the focus is on thirteen of them.
In the women’s singles category, the world ranked top eight fall into the highest class and the next eight represent the next level – which translates to the first six, and the next seven ladies after accounting for Olympic qualification quotas.
Such is the current scene that there are two distinct ranks whereas in earlier times, dating back to the eleven-point game era for the women, the top five would be virtually untouchable by the rest. Even within that top echelon, world number ones regularly served up 11-1 or even love games against world number twos in tournaments, which basically shut out medal talk of anyone other than a handful of names.
Tall women tended to dominate heading into the Athens and Beijing editions of the Olympics but after eight years there has been a resurgence in the smaller athlete in 2012. As China’s dual Olympic gold medallist Zhang Ning (height 5’ 9”) exited the scene the moment she defeated Xie Xingfang (height 5’ 10”) and fell to her knees in disbelief, another player from her same province of Liaoning, the diminutive Wang Xin (height 5’ 5.5”), burst onto the scene from out of nowhere in 2009 and shot to the summit of the rankings in the space of about a year.
The Bae Seung Hee legacy of the 2010 Uber Cup was showing how a player ranked outside the top twenty can topple a tall and powerfully built world number one (Wang Yihan, pictured above with Wang Xin). These two turning points have consolidated into the present confidence we now observe where a lot more ladies of any size are dangerous, the top five do feel threatened by those beyond that circle, and outcomes are hardly certain. Instead of picking one of five names out of a hat, there are realistically thirteen to fill said hat this time around.
In other words, you could visualise there are virtual seeds [1/6] and [7/13]. The point is that visualising two ranks going for gold means technically anyone can take down anyone else. How delicious!
Other than Li, who else?
As a nation, China have the best odds of attaining gold with the maximum three entries yet again. For all three, Wang Yihan, Wang Xin and Li Xuerui (pictured top) these are their first Olympic Games and given history, it should be no disadvantage. Wang Yihan is the current World Champion and Wang Xin was runner-up in the previous edition of the Worlds so their pedigree is well known.
Saina Nehwal (pictured left), ranked no. 5 in the world, is the next nationality after the top four, who all hail from China, and it is not the Indian’s first Olympics. Her visibly leaner physique and heavier attacking style are the result of training dedicated to these Olympics and if claiming the last two big tournaments before the Olympics including a Super Series is any indication, she is peaking at the right time.
Saina has beaten China’s Li Xuerui, crucially this year, but has yet to succeed against the current world number one Wang Yihan across six attempts. Li’s preparation is the opposite. She simply glided into form with no particular pressure to qualify for the Olympics and her remarkable form earned her selection over compatriot Wang Shixian.
Denmark’s Tine Baun, ranked seventh in the world, is a former world number one who stands out as Europe’s great hope. Like the world number one, she epitomizes the power and height, but has been tripped up before by the two standout teenagers, Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying and Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, who are below the field’s average height. Baun’s real kryptonite is another pocket rocket, China’s Wang Xin, whom she has not yet learned to overcome in nine attempts.
Just behind her, at the time of qualification, is perhaps the more serious European hope in the form of Germany’s Juliane Schenk (pictured right with Tine Baun). Her badminton style is hardworking, determined, and consistent and she has been achieving more than anyone would expect of her, which makes her more of the current moment than Baun. To Shenk’s credit, she has found a way to beat all three top Wangs and has pushed Li Xuerui to three games twice this year.
Of the [7/13s], there are the aforementioned teens, Intanon and Tai, plus Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (pictured below) as standouts. The thing is, you never know how Sung will go. Her rhythm fluctuates within a week. She can battle long and hard with the best of them and has beaten all the current big names except Li so far, but also finds herself going the distance against those in and beyond her echelon. She has so much in her favour – height, strength, youth – but relies a great deal, perhaps too much, on reassurance and advice.
All in all, the luck of the draw really makes a difference. Just ask Tine whether she would prefer to avoid Wang Xin.
Exciting times ahead!
These are exciting times for badminton in women’s singles. There is a good possibility the gold could be a non-Chinese player. And, a higher possibility the player has not been a world number one.
The Olympic gold medallists have been Susi Susanti, Bang Soo Hyun, Gong Zhichao, and Zhang Ning, all of whom were well established already when they won. Achieving the hallowed title added sparkle to their résumé and ensured they will be remembered ahead of others.
This time around, we are also staring down a third possibility of the credit being conferred at the start of a career rather than as a crowning achievement like in the case of Zhang Ning, or as mid-career boost for the rest. Unthinkable before yet it would be good for the sport to break arbitrarily established trains of thought and continue to inspire wonderful performances by more players, not just the professionals competing but also anyone tuning in. Sport and inspiration should be inclusive not restricted to but a few stars.
Badminton places a lot of emphasis on the Olympic achievement despite it being noted that it has not been a perfect competition nor does it have the strongest field around. For other than the two Wangs in competition, winning this gold medal will surely lift their technical game to a new level due to the newfound confidence. The celebrity and name chiselled into the history books is nice too.