At the Dongdan sports complex at the heart of central Beijing, it becomes quickly apparent that there are few sports that Chinese take more seriously than Badminton.
Every evening, dozens of women and men, young and old, gather here for intense sessions of “yumaoqiu”. The expansive Badminton hall, which houses more than a dozen courts, reverberates every evening with the thuds of shoes on wooden floorboards and the shouts of young men who sound more like People’s Liberation Army generals than high-school coaches.
So it should come as no surprise that every Olympics, the men’s and women’s Badminton competitions are, along with Table Tennis, by far the most watched events in China – and, competitions where Chinese athletes are simply expected to bring home gold.
When the women’s singles competition’s first rounds begin in earnest on Sunday, millions of Chinese will tune in and follow the campaigns of China’s three big stars – the world number one and favourite at London Wang Yihan, second-ranked Wang Xin and world number three Li Xuerui.
This year, however, the prospects in London of another top female athlete are also being closely followed in China – India’s own Saina Nehwal.
Saina’s victories this past year over Wang Xin and Li have garnered the attention of both Chinese sports administrators and the Badminton-following public, so much so that according to commentators here, the head-to-head record against Saina emerged as a key selection criterion for the Chinese team for the London Olympics.
Former world number one Wang Shixian, who has a losing 1-3 record against Saina, lost out to the less experienced Li, who has a winning 4-2 record, in making the final cut.
This week, sports publications even wondered whether the world’s top three women’s players had enough firepower to bring home gold, expressing concerns that none of them matched up to the all-conquering former champion Zhang Ning, who won gold in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008.
“They are the world’s top three, but compared to Zhang they lack power,” wrote the Chutian sports weekly. “They may be main contenders, but we cannot ignore Nehwal.”
The paper said that the selection of the candidates was “because of Nehwal” – Li Xuerui was chosen was because she “has a better performance when confronting Nehwal”.
In March, Saina defeated Wang Shixian, then ranked number two, to win the Swiss Open. This was followed by her upset victory last month over Li Xuerui at the Indonesia Open, which was broadcast live in China.
The Netease Sports News, a major portal, said the loss in Indonesia “wasn’t all bad”. “Our coach will now attach great importance to the Indian genius,” it said, adding that Saina “will create big trouble to China’s gold medal chances”.
China is backing its world number one Wang Yihan, who has a perfect record against Saina. The 24-year-old Shanghai native is an inspiration to the young aspiring athletes who gather at Dongdan every evening. “She will definitely win gold!,” said one 16-year-old Beijing high-school student, pausing amid a coaching lesson from her father.
Saina’s success has surprised many Badminton-watchers here, if only because India is not viewed as a major sporting nation in China largely on account of its poor Olympics record. And as much as Saina has won over Chinese audiences this past year with her performances, they will be hoping that record stays unchanged in London.