The ongoing China Open is proving a testing ground for the country's young shuttlers to prove their mettle and fill a void left by those veterans who retired in the wake of the Beijing Games.
Host China fared well at badminton during the Aug 8-24 Olympics, earning three gold medals, two silvers and three bronzes, but the subsequent retirement of several stars has brought its own trials and tribulations.
Gone from the national squad is Zhang Ning, a two-time Olympic champion in the women's singles event. Also missing are Athen Games doubles champs Yang Wei and Zhang Jiewen, and two-time Olympic mixed doubles winner Gao Ling. A special ceremony will be held in their honor when the Shanghai tournament ends on Sunday.
Significantly, most of the 60-odd participants at the China Open are aged 20 or younger, giving them time to find their place on the under-construction team and settle into their new roles.
"Entering the senior national side brings me closer to a world championship title and I will continue to strive for this," said Wang Xiaoli, the 2006 women's doubles world junior champion, who was recently moved up. "My ultimate goal is clear now and I'm confident that I can work towards it."
While the squad will be bolstered by newly crowned men's Olympic gold medalist Lin Dan, and women's doubles champions Du Jing and Yu Yang, hopes are pinned on the new recruits to further establish China's position at the top end of the sport - especially in the pairs events.
"Compared to these new guys, we're already veterans," said Yu, who is only 22. "We should set a good example for them and help to build up a healthy competitive atmosphere in the team."
She will have plenty of work to do, given the influx of new pairings brought into the mix.
"In our area alone, five new pairs have been added, but all of them are still in the testing period," said Chen Xingdong, who coaches the mixed doubles team. "We will try to find the best match-ups in the competitions to come."
In the doubles, the team has added four new women's pairs and five more men's.
Fortunately, the national side has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to coaches, many of whom are former Olympic or world champions.
However due to the reshuffling that often occurs in a transitional period such as after the Olympics, some younger coaches in their thirties will get a chance to prove their worth and establish their credentials.
Former men's world champion Xia Xuanze was appointed head coach of the men's singles, while two-time mixed doubles Olympic champion Zhang Jun takes over the role for the men's doubles. Mixed doubles champ Chen Qiqiu will guide the women's doubles team.
"These young coaches have rich competition experience and they will only get better with practice," said overall head coach Li Yongbo. "Their confidence of winning will be of tremendous benefit to the young players."
(China Daily November 19, 2008)