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China remains the powerhouse in badminton, though a diminished one. Even after a bunch of retirements following the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the numbers are still there. Across the world top-10 rankings in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, China has 14 entries. The next best is Denmark with 6.
China still qualifies more people for tournaments than any other. They’re just not winning as often as they used to, especially the women, who could be relied upon to win the big ones. Unlike the Chinese men, the women enjoyed a dynasty.
At the world championships, they have held the doubles title for 20 years. But the singles title was taken from their grasp in 2011, and in 2015 they failed to medal in singles for the first time. Even so, China has failed to top the gold medal count at the worlds only four times in 40 years, and not in 22 years.
At the Olympics, they owned the singles for four straight games, and the doubles for five straight. But the women left Rio failing to medal in singles for the first time in 20 years, and in doubles for the first time ever. And yet China still finished with the most badminton golds for the fifth Olympics in a row.
After Rio, female stalwarts Wang Yihan, Wang Shixian, Zhao Yunlei, Tian Qing, Yu Yang, and Ma Jin retired. Between them, they won eight Olympic medals, four of them gold. They won numerous medals at the worlds, and all were No. 1.
But Chinese fans spoiled by the London Olympics sweep and accustomed to outright domination vented their dismay with the Rio results on long-time national coach Li Yongbo.
Li took it in stride. Filling the void left by the retirees will be difficult, he noted, but that was normal. He wasn’t concerned about the rest of the world catching them up because China had the development programs in place to sustain its excellence.
“Our next generation will be strong,” he promised.
And there’s much to like about the new women singles players: World No. 4 Sun Yu, No. 9 He Bingjiao, and No. 15 Chen Yufei.
Sun, 23, made the finals of four Superseries tournaments and two other big events last year. Each final went the distance. She doesn’t give up.
He turns 20 this month. She’s already won two Superseries events and beaten Olympic runner-up Pusarla Sindhu of India.
Chen turned 19 last week. The reigning junior world champion, she beat former world champ Ratchanok Intanon in September and won the Macau Open in December.
All three won their first-round matches at the All England Open on Wednesday. But their next matches will be harder.
Sun and Chen have to play each other. Sun won both of their previous tour matches last year. He’s second-round opponent is Olympic champion Carolina Marin. They have never met.
There could be only one Chinese woman left in the draw after two rounds.
“We are going through a tough time but mark my words, China will rise again (in women’s singles),” the retired Wang Yihan said recently.
She expects the Chinese women to be spearheaded by Sun and, when she’s fit again, 2012 Olympic champion Li Xuerui, who tore a left knee ligament in the Rio semifinals, played on and lost, and had to forfeit the bronze-medal match.
But Wang was more excited about He and Chen.
“They are way more talented and better than us (her and Wang Shixian) when we were at their same age,” Wang said recently. “They will soon be among the world’s best.”