By Aakash Joshi
My first memory of watching badminton was as a young kid at my uncles’ house. It was the 1999 World Championship final between DAI Yun and Camilla Martin; sensationally the Dane scored a rare victory in a sport dominated by Chinese players. Martin was the first woman to consistently challenge this. In 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, it was Martin who was fighting the Chinese dominance of women’s singles. She battled GONG Zhichao in the final but had to settle for Silver. In Athens 2004 I distinctly remember the match between Mia Audina and ZHANG Nin won by the Chinese athlete in the third set after losing the first. So, my earliest recollections of women’s singles is a sector where China was the superior force.
Fast forward to the 2008 Olympics. I was in class 9 when I watched Beijing’s grand opening ceremony and started to understand the gravitas of the Games. I heard about Saina Nehwal – a young 16-year-old from Hyderabad – I remember that third round match against WANG Chen. No Indian player had reached beyond round of 16 in Olympics and here she was, defeating a world top 5 player in three sets. I was curious. I started watching other matches to see if she could win a medal. I prayed that Saina should get Yulianti and avoid Tina Baun. Yes, Saina Nehwal did get Indonesia’s Maria Yulianti in the QF. It was a real rollercoaster of a game. Saina won the first set in extra points, lost set 2 easily and had a lead of 11-3 in final but it was not to be, and she lost 21-15 in the end.
It was the era of “Saina versus China,” and I followed her progress everywhere. I saw her winning the first prestigious super series 2009 in Indonesia – in front of a crazy Istora Senayan – defeating another Chinese player WANG Lin over 3 sets. Then came the Hyderabad world championship: Saina reached the QF but on this occasion lost to WANG Lin.
It was 2010 and Saina was flourishing. She won 2 SuperSeries tournaments (India Open & Singapore Open), retained her Indonesia Open title and had made it to world #2. Although seeded 2 for the Paris World Championships, she lost in the QF, this time to Chinese WANG Shixian in two straight games. Her focus was shifting to her first multi sporting event – the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. I saw her winning that gold medal from WONG Mew Choo of Malaysia in three hard fought sets. It was a momentous day for Indian badminton.
China dominated the 2011 World Championships winning all five gold medals. Saina expected to do well in London but lost in the quarters again to the Chinese: this time it was tricky WANG Xin who annihilated her in two games. I saw the brilliance of ZHAO Yunlei winning two medals: a gold and a silver. ZHAO for me is one of the greatest players of all time – the only player to have won two Golds at the same Olympics.
London 2012 and Saina arrived in the UK in superb form with a win at the Thailand Open and a third Indonesia Open victory. She got a straightforward draw until the quarters where she faced tricky Tina Baun. That day she won the first game easily, lost momentum in the second game and I switched off the TV. After 3 minutes I saw the news “Saina in Semis of Olympics games” . As a fan, that day in August is a special day in my life. Knowing Saina had a patchy record against the Chinese I still hoped that after breaking the QF barrier she would give a good fight to top seed WANG Yihan like 2011 Super Series finals, but it was not to be. WANG Yihan had other plans. She was untroubled by Saina in both set s 21-13,21-13. Saina then played bronze medal against WANG Xin. WANG Xin started controlling the pace of the match but soon Saina fought back. When Wang Xin fell, initially, I thought it was a tactic to take a break, but no, it was seriously injury, and the game was ended by WANG Xin’s retirement. When the greatest badminton player of all time – LI Lingwei – presented the medal to Saina, I could not hold back my tears. ZHAO Yunlei won two Golds (XD & WD) in London, the only player to have achieved this at the same Olympics.
Although China won Gold and Silver in the Women’s Singles in London, looking back it was the last time Chinese athletes dominated that sector. Suddenly, women players from around the world were challenging for the most prestigious honours.
2013 was a watershed year and the World Championships in Guangzhou epitomized this. On grand finals day with 11000 spectators shouting “Jiayou!” to LI Xuerui, I thought that the young Ratchanok would falter but it was not the case: she was trailing 19-12 but played a net shot to force a lift from LI X. It was just out at the back line and the deceptive Thai started her show. She won that set 22-20, lost the momentum in the second but in third game she controlled her lead and won the match 21-14. On the biggest stage China lost the gold medal to a young Thai girl.
That triumph provided the headlines but if we look a little deeper into the tournament there were other signs that China’s supremacy in WS was being dispelled. P V Sindhu defeated two Chinese opponents back-to-back (WANG Yihan & WANG Shixian) to clinch Bronze; now she has gone on to win a total of five World Championship medals. The stand-out QF for me was the thrilling match between Ratchanok and Carolina Marin. The young Marin lost in three tight sets but has gone on to win the tournament three times, as well as numerous Superseries events and 2016 Olympic Gold.
I have watched greats come and go. I saw the utter dominance of China but the 2013 World Championships and the arrival of Ratchanok, Carolina Marin and Sindhu changed the landscape of Women singles. Later that year an unseeded 16 year-old became the first Japanese woman athlete to win the Japan Open. Akane Yamaguchi stunned the world with her victory over the up-and-coming TAI Tzu Ying; now she is reigning two times World Champion and TAI Tzu Ying has held the World #1 spot for Taiwan for longer than 200 weeks.
Badminton in Women singles is no longer China vs China. Over the past few years, it has become the most diverse group among all 5 disciplines. However, with CHEN Yu Fei winning Gold at the Tokyo Olympics, HE Bing Jao an ever present top ten player and the rise of WANG Zhi Yi and HAN Yue it is arguable that the fightback is on, and the Chinese team are trying their best to reclaim their dominance.
Follow Aakash on Twitter for more Badminton analysis @Badminton1993
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