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New chapter for China's shuttlers

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2021-07-23 09:17
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No longer a dominant badminton force, China's inexperienced squad keeping lid on Tokyo medal expectations 

Mixed doubles pair Zheng Siwei (right) and Huang Yaqiong, pictured in action during June's Olympic tuneup competition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, spearhead China's gold-medal hopes in badminton at the Tokyo Olympics. GETTY IMAGES

Editor's Note: In the final installments of China Daily's Tokyo Olympics preview series, we assess the chances of the Chinese badminton squad and 3x3 basketball team.

With Lin "Super" Dan and other veterans no longer at its disposal, China's young badminton squad is keen to kick-start its rebuilding project in style at a wide-open Olympic tournament in Tokyo.

The youngsters certainly have big shoes to fill in the wake of the retirements of singles great Lin and men's doubles star Fu Haifeng following the 2016 Rio Games.

Aside from reigning world champion mixed doubles pair Huang Yaqiong and Zheng Siwei, China faces uphill battles in the other four events, with Japan's men's world No 1 Kento Momota, the ever-aggressive Indonesian shuttlers and highly competitive opponents from India, Thailand and Denmark favored to dominate.

China, though, should at least enjoy a flying start in the mixed doubles.

Barring any big surprises in their early matches, Huang and Zheng, the top-ranked duo who have been drawn in Group A, are expected to meet compatriots Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping, from Group D, in the July 30 final to secure the first of five golds up for grabs at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.

Mixed doubles coach Yang Ming, however, has called for caution, citing the lack of international tests in their preparations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As the top favorite carrying a target on their backs, they really need to stay clear-headed and prepare for the worst," Yang told People's Daily before leaving for Tokyo.

"They need to focus on the process, doing it right in their mental, technical and physical preparations as well as life after training... everything leads up to the ultimate goal."

Zhang Jun, president of the Chinese Badminton Association, reckons the injury-forced withdrawal of Spain's defending champion Caroline Marin gives China a realistic shot at gold in the women's singles.

Seeded No 1 in Tokyo, China's Chen Yufei is expected to breeze past Egypt's Doha Hany and Turkey's Neslihan Yigit in Group A, and then enjoy a bye to advance to the quarterfinals. From that point on, a fierce battle for gold will surely ensue against world No 1 Tai Tzu-ying of Chinese Taipei, home favorite Okuhara Nozomi and India's Rio 2016 silver medalist PV Sindhu.

Retired Chinese singles legend Zhang Ning has backed Chen to prevail.

"I have faith in our current singles players that they have what it takes to beat whoever they encounter at the Games," Zhang, a two-time Olympic champion (2004 and 2008), said last month after being inducted into the Badminton Hall of Fame.

"They just need to trust in the process and stay focused without thinking too much."

Should Chen live up to those lofty expectations, the Chinese squad could justifiably claim its Tokyo campaign a success. After all, the squad is well aware it trails the world's best in the other three events.

Even with defending champion Chen Long and former world No 2 Shi Yuqi leading the charge, the men's singles title in Tokyo remains a long shot for China, with top seed Momota looking close to invincible after collecting back-to-back world championships in 2018 and 2019.

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