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Sun setting on China's shuttlers?
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Since Gong Zhichao claimed gold in the women's badminton singles at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, China's women shuttlers have maintained their domination of the sport, winning gold medals at the past two Olympic Games and five world championships.

Recent poor results and stronger opponents, however, have raised questions about China's ability to dominate at the Games again this summer.

Although Xie Xingfang and her young teammate Lu Lan currently top the women's singles rankings, China's women have a difficult task at the upcoming Beijing Games.

They failed to win a title at a series of international competitions earlier this year, including the All England, considered one of the most important tournaments before the Games. It was China's worst result in six years.

Defending Olympic champion, Zhang Ning, has not been at her best for a long time. The aging and injury-plagued player has gone almost a year without a trophy and was absent from the Uber Cup, the women's teams world championships, in May. The former world No 1 has fallen to No 7.

Since the top two ranked players, Xie and Lu, have already booked their Olympic berths, Zhang has to compete for the last Olympic ticket with youngster Zhu Lin, the newly crowned world champion last year.

World No 1 Xie has just recovered from injury and is still far from her best form. At the All England, the three-time defending champion Xie was eliminated in the first round.

Head coach Li Yongbo said China still needs time to get used to the 21-point scoring system.

"The new scoring system will lead to more unexpected results," Li said. "Any mistake in the competition will cost you a point, and we have to take more time to learn the system and gain more experience.

"The new system makes the women's singles match longer, which may cause more troubles for veteran players. It also means the advantage of China's women's players is not as big as it used to be. We have to work harder in order to keep our edge in the sport."

Li said the final Olympic squad will not be decided until late July and the four players in contention have equal opportunities.

The relatively poor form of China has given shuttlers from the rest of the world an opportunity.

Denmark's veteran Tine Rasmussen has stolen the spotlight, rising to world No 3. She also beat Zhu and Lu on her way to January's Malaysia Open title.

At the Japan Open last September, Rasmussen demonstrated Europe's growing competitiveness with wins over China's national champion Jiang Yanjiao, Zhang, Lu and then Xie in the final.

Wong Mew Choo from Malaysia is another big headache. The 25-year-old upset Xie in the final of last November's China Open, where the host settled for just two of the five titles, China's worst showing in 14 years at the tournament.

Some Hong Kong players are also strong medal contenders, including world No 6 Wang Chen and No 9 Zhou Mi.

(China Daily June 27, 2008)

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