China's rebuild gathering pace

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Huang Dongping (R)/Li Wenmei of China compete in the women's doubles match against Matsutomo Misaki/Matsuyama Nami of Japan during a final match between China and Japan at Uber Cup badminton tournament in Aarhus, Denmark, Oct. 16, 2021. (Xinhua/Zhang Cheng)

With a haul of two gold medals and a silver from three major international team tournaments over the last two weeks, China's shuttlers showed they are moving in the right direction as they attempt to rekindle the nation's traditional dominance of the sport.

The exploits of the Chinese women's team have particularly buoyed fans, with last weekend's 3-1 triumph over Japan in the Uber Cup final in Denmark coming hot on the heels of a win over the same opposition in the Sudirman Cup final in Finland on Oct 3.

Stung by the controversial withdrawal of Shi Yuqi, China's men didn't quite manage to hit those heights during a 3-0 Thomas Cup final defeat to Indonesia. However, their campaign still had plenty of positives to point to.

"It's unprecedented for us to play these three big tournaments together in such a short space of time. It's a huge challenge for our players' skills, and physical and mental strength," Zhang Jun, president of the Chinese Badminton Association, told Tencent Sports.

"Before these tournaments, our players also participated in the Tokyo Olympics and the National Games, so the schedule has been very intense. I don't think such a schedule will happen again in the future. I'm very satisfied with our players' performance.

"This time our core players are all young guns. We want to give the next generation of players more opportunities to play. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we didn't have a chance to play any international events for over a year, so these tournaments were very helpful for our young players to grow.

"We faced many difficulties, and also needed to follow the pandemic prevention regulations. During the team competitions, our players showed great spirit-cheering on each other and displaying the power of teamwork."

The Chinese women's Uber Cup triumph enthralled fans back home, with the turning point coming in Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan's epic two-hour victory over Japan's Yuki Fukushima and Mayu Matsumoto.

The match was described as "one of the greatest women's doubles matches in Uber Cup history" by the Badminton World Federation's official website, with related news viewed over 150 million times on Weibo over the weekend.

"Both ourselves and our opponents played very hard during the final. Our belief on the court was that we must win a point back for Team China," said Jia. "Qingchen kept encouraging me the whole time. She told me, 'If you are going to die, you die on the court! Just keep pushing!'

"My partner and I have absolute trust in each other. We believe we need to show our unbending will on the court. Even if I need to play 200 minutes, I will not give up a single point without a fight.

"We had never played such a long match before. I think we grew a lot through the Tokyo Olympics, so we know how to better handle the key points. Yes we were under pressure, but I think the best part was how we overcame the difficulties."

Chinese badminton chief Zhang heaped praise on the women's heroic efforts.

"Our young players produced really outstanding performances this time, especially our women's team," Zhang said.

"During the Uber Cup final, the Japanese put us under severe pressure. Japan's performance at the Tokyo Olympics was not ideal, so I think their desire to win this time was really high.

"Although China was the favorite, we weren't as strong as some media suggested. Chen Yufei has been really tired after winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics and the National Games. Many of our rivals have been studying her for a long time. Also, Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan were pushed to the limits of their physical fitness. We were all really thrilled to see the women's team win again.

"At one point in the match, Jia Yifan looked a little bit lost on the court, but her teammate kept encouraging her. Chen said that when she felt exhausted, she would look at the Uber Cup trophy for motivation. They fought the hardest they could every second."

Retirement storm

The Chinese men's team's runner-up finish in the Thomas Cup was tainted by controversy, with many fans critical of Shi Yuqi's retirement during his singles rubber against Japan's world No 1 Momota Kento in the semifinals.

Shi lost the first set 22-20 after missing a set point and then retired as Kento was about to serve for the match at 20-5.

"I thought that maybe Momota was also very tired and that I might be able to fight back if he made some mistakes," Shi explained.

"That's why I did not give up when it was 2-11 in the first set. But finally I quit at match point. I had my own reasons for this."

Shi later cited injuries and tiredness for his withdrawal in a social media post, but that did little to quell fans' anger online.

Kento was equally perplexed by Shi's decision, telling Xinhua: "I didn't quite understand why Shi gave up at the last moment. I hope his injuries are not getting worse. Anyway, I was very happy to win the first match for my team."

Shi's withdrawal saw world No 27 Lu Guangzu promoted to the team for the final, with fans pinpointing the personnel change as a major factor in China's defeat.

Ever since the retirement of the legendary Lin Dan, Chinese fans have been waiting for the emergence of a new superstar to restore the nation's dominance in men's badminton.

China's men's No 1 Chen Long has also almost reached the end of his career, with the 32-year-old choosing to give the European tournaments a miss following his exertions at Tokyo 2020 and the National Games.

Shi's inability to shoulder the responsibility of leading the team in Chen's absence, therefore, left fans deeply unimpressed.

CBA president Zhang, however, was keen to highlight the experience gained at the Thomas Cup.

"Our young players have learned a lot. Some of them haven't played such high-level international tournaments, so this was a great opportunity for them and a boost for their confidence," said Zhang.

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