Xia Xuanze asserts superiority

Xia Xuanze wave to the crowd, after winning singles title. — Pic. CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES-

The 25-year-old Xia Xuanze of China burst on the International scene in 1999 when he, along with Ji Xinpeng reached the finals of the Dutch Open that year and went on to win the first ever title. Both Xuanze and Ji Xinpeng were the emerging stars of China at that time and were tipped to take over the mantle from the likes of Dong Jiong and Sun Jun. He immediately followed this victory with another good win over the then reigning Indian national Champion Pullela Gopichand in the finals of the German Open in three games. This was also the time Gopi was just arriving on the scene. Thus Xuanze's two victories in two consecutive weeks showed that the Chinese had it in him to go places and that he has emerged as one of the top players in the World. He confirmed his superiority in no uncertain terms the following year when he went on to win the All England Open and Swiss Open in March 2000 — again in two successive weeks. In the All England finals he defeated Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia and in the Swiss Open beat his compatriot Ji Xinpeng both in straight games.

Four titles within a span of six months obviously made him the favourite for the Olympic Gold Medal in Sydney in September 2000 but he was not able to handle the pressure and lost tamely in the semifinals to Hendrawan of Indonesia. Instead, it was Xuanze's compatriot Ji Xingpeng who went on to win the Olympic Gold against all odds. It is a different matter altogether that Ji Xinpeng was just not able to maintain his form subsequently and has been out of action since then. He has probably retired by now and must have already taken up a coaching assignment.

On the other hand, Xuanze continued his quest for higher laurels though his form slumped. He was not able to maintain the high standard he had set for himself though he did manage to win a couple of major events now and then. In 2001 he went on to win the Asian Championships and followed it up with a victory in China Open.

Ironically, Xuanze had to wait till April this year to win his next major title which was the Japan Open. But his biggest moment of glory came in Birmingham when he annexed the crown at the World Championships, one of the most prestigious titles in badminton. This happens to be a seven star tournament which means that it carries the highest number of world ranking points. There are only two tournaments in the World with a seven star rating — the only other event which falls in this category happens to be the Olympics which goes to show the importance of these championships. Xuanze, who was ranked No. 4 in the world before the tournament began, is likely to jump at least a couple of places with this victory.

It was not smooth sailing all the way for the champion in Birmingham. He narrowly won his quarterfinal tie against Kenneth Jonassen of Denmark in three games. He was down in both the first and second games against the Dane but showed his fighting qualities by coming back strongly to win the match in 95 minutes. In fact this encounter turned out to be one of the best matches of the tournament.

Born in Zhe Jiang on 5th January 1978, Xuanze has come a long way since hitting the headlines at the age of 21. He has matured as a player and has developed an all round game over the years. He has learnt the art of varying his speed during the course of a match that has helped him on many occasions. He can play an attacking game when called for and can defend well, if required. He has added a fair bit of deception to his game which makes him an even more dangerous player now.

It remains to be seen if Xuanze can break the jinx, which is attached to the men's singles winner of a World Championships. It has been observed over the years, since the championships began in 1977 that whoever wins the men's singles title, they have not done well subsequently. Most of them have faded away since winning the title right from the time Fleming Delfs won the inaugural event in 1977. Only Yang Yang has been an exception. He managed to win the title twice in a row in 1987 and 1989. One can only hope that Xuanze will follow the footsteps of Yang Yang rather than the other champions.

Zhang Ning

In sharp contrast to the eventual men's singles winner Xia Xuanze, Zhang Ning had a smooth ride all the way wining the women's singles event comfortably. In fact her victory in the finals was a foregone conclusion. She asserted her superiority by winning all the matches in straight games. In the six matches that she played in the tournament, Zhang Ning did not concede more than six points in a game to any opponent. She even defeated both Camilla Martin and Mia Audina 11-0 in the second game in her quarterfinal and semifinal ties against them respectively. I do not recall many instances where a player has beaten opponents without conceding a point and that too at the last eight and last four stages of completion. This simply showed her superiority in all departments of the game.

Zhang Ning wave to the crowd, after winning singles title. — Pic. CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES-

At 28, Zhang Ning may not have many years ahead of her. In fact, I will not be surprised if the Chinese authorities ask her to retire for generally that has been the trend so far. Many of the past World Champions from China have retired from the game either immediately after the World Championships or Olympics. At the most she may be asked to continue till the next Olympics in Athens, Greece in 2004 for she has not represented China in the Olympics so far. She might get one last chance to have a go at the Olympic Gold next year.

At 5'8" Zhang Ning is unusually tall for a Chinese athlete. Others look small in comparison. She takes full advantage of her height and covers the court beautifully. She has a good attacking, clear on both flans. She creates most of her openings from this stroke and finishes the rally with a hard smash.. She is equally adept at the net as she is from the back. To top it all, she is extremely positive and rarely commits a mistake. All these qualities makes it that much more difficult for the opponents to score points. The National Indoor Arena in Birmingham was a perfect venue for her kind of a game. She controlled the proceedings beautifully throughout the tournament and emerged victorious.

She started her international career way back in 1994 as a young 19-year-old in the Brunei Open by reaching the finals. She has won several tournaments since then including the Swedish Open, Malaysian Open, China Open, Singapore Open, Asian Championships, Korean Open etc. Her only victory this year was in the Swiss Open in February 2003 where she beat Wang Chen on her way to annexing the title. For a major part of her career, she has been in the shadows of Dai Yun, Ye Zhaoying, Zhou Mi, Gong Ruina, Gong Zhichao etc, China has such abundance of talent on the distaff side that it is extremely difficult for any one player to remain on the top for a long time. Considering the above, I think Zhang Ning has done well for herself. But no one knows for sure how long she will remain there.