China is the most successful country in recent badminton history but, spearheaded by ageing legend Lin Dan, its hosts the World Championships next week at one of its lowest ebbs.
Lin is in the twilight of his brilliant career at 34, while a sense of crisis engulfs China’s women’s team following its disappointing showing at the Uber Cup in May.
It was not long ago that China dominated badminton. At the London 2012 Olympics, they won all five gold medals.
But at Rio 2016, that tally was two, and this year at the Uber Cup — the most prestigious team tournament — Chinese women were dumped out in the semifinals by hosts Thailand.
It was the first time since joining the competition in 1984 that China had failed to reach the final, prompting a public backlash and the reported dismissal of the women’s coach Zhang Ning.
Superstar Lin helped save face — Chinese men won the Thomas Cup — but the World Championships begin in Nanjing on Monday with the tournament wide open.
Lin will be the home-crowd favourite, but the man often regarded as the best player of all time is past his prime.
The former world number one is now ninth in the rankings, although he can still turn it on when he really wants to.
In a blow to the Nanjing showpiece, Lin’s long-time rival Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia will be missing because of a respiratory illness, it was announced this week.
China’s reigning Olympic champion Chen Long is meanwhile struggling for consistency, leaving holder and top seed Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, Japan’s in-form Kento Momota and K. Srikanth of India all fancied to go far.
Indonesian duo Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo are firm favourites in the men’s doubles, underlining how China’s dominance has waned.
China in 2017 replaced Li Yongbo, the bullish and no-nonsense coach who oversaw more than two decades of success, in an effort to breathe new life into Chinese badminton, which benefits from substantial government support.
Zhang Jun, a former Olympian brought in to coach China’s doubles teams, hopes that tasting disappointment can spur them on.
“Actually, losing could be a good thing, especially for the upcoming World Championships and Asian Games (in August),” he told the online badminton channel Ace21 this week.
“We can find the problems and learn from the losses.”
Shi Yuqi is the highest-ranked Chinese men’s player, at three in the world, while in the women’s draw Taiwan’s Tai Tzu-ying is the clear favourite.
The 24-year-old Tai has lost just once this year and marched off with an astonishing five titles.
One of those who could spring an upset in the women’s competition is P.V. Sindhu, the Indian world number three who lost to Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in last year’s final.
China will still be a force in Nanjing, but Sindhu agrees that they are not the all-conquering team that they once were.
“Japan’s Minatsu Mitani and Nozomi Okuhara are doing really well, then there is (South) Korea’s Sung Ji-hyun and world number one Tai Tzu-ying… who always is a major threat,” Sindu, 23, told The Hindu newspaper.
“It is a good sign for world badminton.”
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