An overwhelming show by the Chinese

Xia Xuanze of China returns the shuttle during the men's singles final against compatriot Lin Dan in the Japan Open badminton championship. Xia beat Lin in straight sets to end his title drought. -- Pic. AFP-

THE Chinese are bracing themselves for the World badminton championships to be held in Birmingham (England) from May 12 to 18. And given the sterling performances which were witnessed in the Yonex Japan Open — openly acknowledged as a warm-up tournament for the premier event — through the first week of April in Tokyo, it would be no surprise if the Chinese rule the roost in Birmingham.

THE Chinese are bracing themselves for the World badminton championships to be held in Birmingham (England) from May 12 to 18. And given the sterling performances which were witnessed in the Yonex Japan Open — openly acknowledged as a warm-up tournament for the premier event — through the first week of April in Tokyo, it would be no surprise if the Chinese rule the roost in Birmingham.

In fact, it was only a month ago when the Chinese pride was badly bruised in the international arena as the Asian behemoth meekly surrendered to arch-rival South Korea (3-1) in the mixed-team Sudirman Cup final in Eindhoven, Holland. But as the Chinese revelled in the performances of their top stars in Tokyo and reaped rich rewards, the turnaround also did force many of their critics to eat their words that the invincibility of China was a thing of the past.

Such calculations had come too early, though the Chinese did take some unexpected knocks in the $ 180,000 Grand Prix event in Tokyo. Notable among them being the early exit of their World No. 1 star Chen Hong from the men's singles and the failure of Xie Xingfang to stop Denmark's Camilla Martin from taking the women's singles title. This, despite the fact, that the Chinese boasting of as many as four of the top eight seeds amongst their ranks were the overwhelming favourites for this title.

However, the early exit of Chen Hong notwithstanding, the men's singles final still saw an all-Chinese final before Xia Xuanze triumphed over compatriot Lin Dan and ended a personal 18-month-long title drought. The 2001 World Cup Grand Prix finals winner had lost at the hands of South Korean Lee Hyun-Il in the 2002 Japan Open finals twelve months ago playing in the now discarded 5x7 scoring system. But this time around, the 23-year-old, who had last won a title by emerging the winner of the 2001 China Open, was always in the race to make amends for his failure last year.

The former Asian champion, figuring in the bottom half of the draw as the second seed, had a bye in the first round and then was able to score convincing wins over Nabil Lasmari (France) and Marleve Mainaky (Indonesia) before he ran into Peter Gade, the third round conqueror of reigning champion Lee Hyun-Il, in the quarters.

Emerging out of this contest with a 15-12, 15-8 win, the Chinese player was then to account Indonesian Taufik Hidayat, the Busan Asian Games gold medallist, (15-9, 17-15) before booking a berth for the title-round.

Chen had removed the all-England champion, Muhammed Hafiz Hashim of Malaysia in a tough three-setter, before he was overcome by Lin Dan in the last eight. The young Chinese player as in his previous outings against Hock Kim Yong and Yeoh Kay Bin (both Malaysia) and Indra Wijaya (Singapore) was once again taken the full distance by the top seed before he emerged victorious 8-15, 15-10, 17-14. In the semifinals too, Lin Dan was fully stretched by third seed Kenneth Jonassen (Denmark) before he continued his dream run with a 15-8, 16-17, 15-10 victory.

Xia Xuanze, however, hardly gave anything away to the 20-year-old as he used his experience and artistry at the net to prevail over Lin Dan in straight sets 15-12, 15-10. The World No. 4 required just a little over 50 minutes to seal his supremacy over his younger opponent who now trails 0-3 in head-to-head encounters between the two players.

The string of surprises seen in the men's section was visible in an equally strong measure in the women's singles as well. Particularly shocking was the failure of the top two Chinese seeds Ning Zhang and Zhou Mi to get beyond the quarterfinal stage being upset by Camilla Martin and Pi Hongyan respectively. The 29-year-old Dane, the World No. 7, who scalped Ning Zhang had begun with a 11-0, 11-0 shut out against another Chinese, Lin Zhu in the opening round and then had beaten Thailand's Salakjit Polsana (11-2, 11-6) before meeting the top seed.

The quarterfinal meeting between the two was an error-filled affair before the Dane won 11-4, 0-11, 11-2 and then went on to get past the challenge of her all-England conqueror Pi Hongyan (France) 11-3, 11-7 in the semifinals. Xie, her challenger in the final, was extended by Japan's Sachiko Seki (11-3, 12-13, 11-3) in the first round before she found her touch and class against Nicole Grether (Germany), compatriot Ruina Gong and the second-seeded Chen Wong (Hong Kong) in the subsequent rounds.

Xie, for the record, had an identical 11-6, 11-2 win over the German and Ruina Gong got an equally easy 11-3, 11-0 ride against Chen Wong before she set up a title-round clash with Martin. It was a great chance for the Chinese to set the 1-2 head-to-head record against the Dane straight and also avenge the defeat that she had suffered against Martin at the 2002 Denmark Open.

However, the all-England runner-up as she ran against her Danish opponent was simply blown away at 11-1, 11-5. Martin allowed Xie to win just eight rallies in the first set and then had a 6-0 lead in the second before clinching the title and with it a cheque for $ 12,420 in just under 18 minutes. "It was much easier today than I had expected. I think Xie was very nervous and made a lot of mistakes which made it very easy for me. I have been playing here and never reached the final before. It's always a strong tournament and I am very happy that I could win here at last," remarked the Dane, celebrating her title-triumph.

In doubles play, the men's action saw an exact re-match of the Swiss Open finals in February as China's Cheng Rui and Chen Qiqiu clashed with the Indonesian-born English pair of Flandi Limpele and Eng Hian for the title.

But the Chinese pair, playing together internationally since December last, like in Switzerland could hardly make an impression as they lost to their English opponents at 15-5, 15-12. In the semis, the Chinese had come against a strong Danish duo of Lars Paaske and Jonas Rasmussen (15-9, 5-15, 17-16) while Limpele and Hian had it easy against Michael Lamp and Mathias Bose, also of Denmark, 15-7, 15-11.

In the women's doubles, the Chinese pair of Gao Ling and Huang Sui was taken the full distance by compatriots Wei Yili and Zhao Tingting (10-13, 11-6, 11-5) in the final.

Ling and Sui, in the semis, had made short work of Yim Kyung-Jin and Lee Hyo-Jung 11-5, 11-0, while Yili and Tingting had toppled another South Korean pair of Ra Kyung-Min and Lee Kyung-Won, the defending champions, 11-8, 8-11, 11-9.

Japan was one of the few stops where Gao Ling was unsuccessful last year, losing in the final to Ra Kyung-Min and Lee Kyung-Won of the women's doubles and eventually leaving empty-handed in the mixed doubles after she and Zhang Jun were beaten by Indonesia's Tri Kusharyanto and Emma Ermawati in the quarterfinals. To make up for those losses, Gao Ling was rewarded with a golden double this time as she and Zhang Jun went on to take the mixed doubles title with a 9-11, 11-8, 11-9 win over the Danish pair of Jens Eriksen and Mette Schjoldager.

But for the loss of the women's singles and the men's doubles titles, it was an overwhelming show by the Chinese who should now be poised to conquer the world in Birmingham next month.

Nevertheless, the reaction from the Chinese head coach, Li Yongbo, as usual was laced with caution.``For the Japan Open, we intended to get more knowledge of our rivals, to accumulate experience for our players and to prepare for the coming World championships and the Olympics next year. However, the victories here cannot justify any easy triumphs for our players in the coming meets.''

The results:

Men's singles (final): Xia Xuanze (Chn) bt Lin Dan (Chn) 15-12, 15-10. Semifinals: Xia Xuanze bt Taufik Hidayat (Ina) 15-9, 17-15; Lin Dan bt Kenneth Jonassen (Den) 15-8, 16-17, 15-10.

Men's doubles (final): Flandi Limpele/Eng Hian (Eng) bt Cheng Rui/Chen Qiqiu (Chn) 15-5, 15-12. Semifinals: Flandi Limpele/Eng Hian bt Michael Lamp/Mathias Bose (Den) 15-7, 15-11; Cheng Rui/Chen Qiqiu bt Lars Paaske/Jonas Rasmussen (Den) 15-9, 5-15, 17-16.

Women's singles (final): Camilla Martin (Den) bt Xie Xingfang (Chn) 11-1, 11-5. Semifinals: Camilla Martin bt Pi Hongyan (Fra) 11-3, 11-7; Xie Xingfang bt Wang Chen (Hkg) 11-3, 11-0.

Women's doubles (final): Gao Ling/Huang Sui (Chn) bt Wei Yili/Zhao Tingting (Chn) 10-13, 11-6, 11-5. Semifinals: Gao Ling/Hugang Sui bt Yim Kyung-Jin/Lee Hyo-Jung (Kor) 11-5, 11-0; Wei Yili/Zhao Tingting bt Ra Kyung-Min/Lee Kyung-Won (Kor) 11-8, 8-11, 11-9.

Mixed doubles (final): Zhang Jun/Gao Ling (Chn) bt Jens Eriksen/Mette Schjoldager (Den) 9-11, 11-8, 11-9. Semifinals: Zhang Jun/Gao Ling bt Kim Dong-Moon/Ra Kyung-Min (Kor) 11-7, 9-11, 11-7; Jens Eriksen/Mette Schjoldager bt Chen Qiqiu/Zhao Tingting (Chn) 11-8, 11-4.