A last-minute change of mind by China ushered Li Xuerui into the London Olympics – and today it proved a golden move.
Preferred to compatriot Wang Shixian, who was world-ranked No. 3 at the Olympic qualification deadline but whom Li has since overtaken, the fast-rising star justified her country’s faith in her, delivering the Women’s Singles gold medal.
It was a China 1-2 as Li defeated world No. 1 Wang Yihan in a repeat of the All England Open final in which Li – then on a stunning 30-match unbeaten run – upstaged Wang.
It was hardly surprising that Wang – the dominant women’s player in recent years – started more aggressively, preferring to drive the shuttle or engage in flat exchanges while her teammate Li opted for a combination of cut drop shots and high clears.
Li was the less anxious of the two players in the first game while it became clear Wang was growing impatient as she tried to hit shuttles too close to the net or the tram lines, or was not fully balanced before striking the shuttle when not under pressure during the rallies. Li would move 10-5 ahead in the first game as a result of Wang’s unforced errors. Looking out of sorts, Wang fell victim to drop shots three times and the first game was quickly won 21-15 by Li.
In the second game, Li continued to enjoy some success with the same tactics but also started to hit wide on attempted winners. Li earned a match point in the second game but was unable to convert as a determined Wang fought to stay in the match, finally clinching the game 23-21.
Both players were tense in the third game but more often it was Wang who retrieved the difficult net shots and, after 78 minutes, Li emerged the winner, 21-17; taking the glitz of gold with her. It’s the first time this millennium that the Women’s Singles Olympic title has been won by a player who is yet to be world No. 1.
“My selection wasn’t guaranteed,” noted 21-year-old Li. “When I was told I was going to London, it meant so much to me. I think my selection came as a result of hard work. Right now I’m dreaming and it feels incredible.”
Meanwhile, Saina Nehwal became only the second woman in Olympic history to win a medal for India. She took the bronze after Wang Xin retired at the start of the second game with an injury to her left knee. The Chinese world No. 2 was leading the match 21-18 1-0 when she called it quits.
“I still can’t believe it, because in badminton I didn’t believe India could get a medal,” she stated. “This is due to (coach) Gopi and my parents’ hard work and all the well-wishers in India.”
Her coach Pullela Gopichand revealed that Nehwal’s bronze had finally erased his disappointment at missing out on a medal at the Sydney Olympics.
“It’s a great moment for Indian badminton,” he said. “I hope we can produce more players, for which we need infrastructure around the country and better coaching methods. We need to be like a pack.”