Beiwen Zhang: Playing tournaments is part of my training

The U.S. No. 1 shuttler elaborates on the value of PBL, the situation of not having a coach during tournaments, and more.

Beiwen Zhang plays for Awadhe Warriors in the Premier Badminton League.   -  G. RAMAKRISHNA

U.S.’s Beiwen Zhang enjoys coming to India to participate in the Premier Badminton League. The team spirit inherent to the league is a breath of fresh air for her in the midst of the mechanical, monotonous Super Series assignments.

Zhang hopes to utilise her PBL experience to encourage stakeholders in badminton to invest further in the sport in the U.S., where it is still nascent. The China-born shuttler has to fly to South-East Asia ahead of tournaments to train.

She has had to resort to crowdfunding to manage her expenses of playing tournaments around the world. Unlike other players, she mostly travels without a coach.

The 29-year-old Zhang, who represents Awadhe Warriors in the league like last season, elaborates on her challenges, the importance of fitness, the value of PBL, and more, in an interaction with Sportstar.

Q. What makes you keep coming back to play this league?

A. Actually, PBL [is important] for me also because I want to promote badminton in the U.S. So, PBL is a really good opportunity because a lot of Indians are playing and in the U.S., there are also a lot of Indians playing badminton. So for me, it's both sides. One is: here my player value is pretty high. I also want to promote myself in India and in the U.S.

For me, it's a really good chance to just join this league, and spend three weeks. But I get more things coming back to me. It's not only money. In the U.S., badminton is small compared with India. Of course, our government doesn’t really support badminton, but if a lot of people play, that's a different story. Even now a lot of people play, but the government does not support, but this sport is going to be getting bigger, too, because not only government companies [but also private ones,] if they see this value in sports [it could be going the same way] as tennis. So I think I just wanted to tell people, ‘okay, maybe in the U.S., the market is small, but you can have a lot of opportunity to promote yourself, promote the sport, for your country.’

It's different from the Super Series. In the U.S, there are a lot of Chinese, a lot of Indians, and Americans. But mostly who play badminton are Chinese and Indians. So you can see the opportunity.

But there are Indians working for whom? The Caucasians. So this is like a circle, so you have to think about it. I'm trying my best, because since I'm the only one, I cannot do much. But I'm trying my best to promote badminton.

Where do you train now?

Actually I'm not training in the U.S. I'm training in Malaysia and Singapore. So if I'm home, I don't really have a chance to touch the racquet (laughs).

So where do you spend most of your time in the year?

Sometimes, I will be going back home to rest a little bit. Before the tournament, I'll go somewhere else to train, maybe one week or two weeks and [then] go into the tournaments.

Where are your parents settled?

My parents [are] in China, because they cannot speak English. So sometimes if I was at home, then they will fly, to visit me. But not every time, because I couldn't afford it that much, too, [and] my parents also don't make that much money. Sometimes I feel if I’m home for a month, I will ask them to come to visit me.

Do you visit China from time to time?

I don't really have time. Last year, or two years before, I visited China during the Chinese New Year. That's the first time in 15 years (laughs). And I only spent three days home.

So do you have a coach now?

Actually, I have a coach in Singapore, but I also cannot afford it for him to come for every tournament [I play in]. So, normally, when I’m training in Singapore, he would be there to train me.

You spent a lot of time you know coaching yourself. So how different is it between having a coach and not having one. There must be advantages as well.

Yes. When you have a coach, he can tell you what is going on in the court. But obviously when you’re training, the coach is really important because he can see every day outside the court - what is your weakness and what is your strength. So, in a tournament, maybe the coach [makes only a] 10 percent or 15 percent [difference,] because sometimes you have stress or something he can’t control, he only can point out what you can change on court[, or] what strategy today [is good] for you. [With] someone you can discuss like that but obviously, I'm used to [having] no coach on court. So I prefer when I’m training to have a coach, when I'm playing tournaments myself it is fine [without one,] but of course [for] important tournaments, I will request him to come with me.

How was the year 2019 for you?

In 2019, I was injured for four or five months. I'm not really happy with my results. But I'm also not really disappointed. So I'm mostly okay, but just sometimes I have a really good draw. I feel I wasted my chances, but I was being injured pretty badly because it just suddenly happened. Sometimes I felt my knee is just moving to the side because they said my ATP or something (adenosine triphosphate) is too tight. It’s pretty annoying.

You've been steady in the rankings nevertheless. Do you want to push up in the rankings this year?

It's hard. I don't play as many tournaments, because I’m injured. I mean it’s just always like that, when I have a really good time… first of all, I don't have money… or when I’m having a good time I get injured. Especially, in 2017, I got into semifinals of the Indonesia Open, that was the premier tournament. My calf got torn. I couldn't play for three weeks. I couldn't move for three weeks. My body really can’t afford that much high intensity. But now I have a physio because I don't want to be like that anymore. But when I have a physio, it’s lucky I have a physio so [injuries] do not last so long. I find the other players have the same injury [that I have and] still play with that. I asked [someone] how long your injury is, she says over a year. I say I’m pretty luck my injury lasted for only six months (laughs).

This year do you want to cope with such situations better? In terms of fitness and diet, do you plan to make any changes?

I think I'm doing quite good with fitness by myself and sometimes my physio also helps me. But I think physio is really important for me because I would be 30 years old this year. Body health is really important. And also before Olympics, I just want to be safe and injury free.

At the same time, it is a Catch-22 situation where you have to continuously play matches as it's mandatory for a player to play a number of tournaments in a year. You have to do that as well as be prepared for the Olympics.

It's okay because if I stopped playing tournament for me, it's not really good because I don't have a training base. So tournament for me is also a part of training.

You’ve come to India a few times, what are your impressions of this country?

India is a really interesting country because there’s a long history and then it’s a different culture actually. I can taste the food; it's so different. I was trying something with yogurt. Yeah, but I feel you experience that and you don't experience it in some other country.

But India is big and we are travelling to different cities. We don't really have that experience in other countries and in other leagues. And we spend so much time together every day. And you can see the team spirit. Every day we see each other, we build a team spirit. But this is really important for a league. If you play a lot or other leagues, you don't feel this. Like, you don't feel the team is more important. You just go there and get some money and come back, like that.

So this is a little different this is because badminton is an individual sport, but here, you know you're playing with the team.

We are enjoying to be a team. We travel as a team, especially for me, I'm traveling all alone all the time, so I appreciate it. They picked me, and I can be part of this team. I can experience what the team is feeling, Because even for the U.S., they're playing Thomas Cup, Uber Cup. They’re there, but just for travelling.

You know, that's why I don't really feel comfortable with American players. The heart is not there. They love badminton. I understand. But when they're training I feel like their heart is not there on court. So, why are you coming for training? So this is just different. I feel when you are there, just do your best. Everyone has a bad day, but just don't stop fighting. Your chance will come.

Is it easier for team spirit to build when a player plays for a country, where his or her team-mates will not keep changing?

That's not true. No, because in some countries, the association forces them to play.

But when you're together, you're spending a lot of time together.

Most of the times, how long will the tournament last? Only 10 or seven days. That's the maximum. Sometimes they don’t want to be there. My point is, maybe our level is pretty balanced – there are no top players here or no lower-ranked players. But we all want it. I think that's important, no matter what level you are, but we just wanted to fight. I think this is the most important thing because in other tournaments or other leagues, you can’t see what you can see in PBL.

Which country do you like to tour most?

I enjoy playing in Japan, in the Japan League. It’s a tiring schedule, but it was also my first experience in Japan. Last year I was enjoying the Japan League. It's a different culture, different schedules and different thinking.

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