Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan were the two shining Women’s Singles stars of London 2012; their all-China final showcasing the nation’s dominance in that category.
Four years on, the two are still around, but only the most optimistic of their fans will predict another Li-Wang final. The category has changed unrecognisably, and while Li and Wang are still formidable, a number of equally talented and feisty characters have sprung up around the world.
In the couple of years following London 2012, Li, Wang and compatriot Wang Shixian were among the most successful Women’s Singles players on the circuit, but over the last two years, the discipline has seen revolutionary transformation. Meanwhile, Li and Wang have had modest success in the run-up to the Rio Olympics. Wang hasn’t won a World Superseries title since April 2014; Li has been more successful, but hasn’t been atop the podium since November 2015.
Still, the Olympics is a different ballgame altogether, and the Chinese’s experience and ability to rise to the occasion will count. With Li in the top half of the draw and Wang in the bottom half, another all-China final can hardly be ruled out.
“I’m feeling fit; there’s no pressure, I’m just trying to treat it like another tournament,” said defending champion Li, appearing quietly confident.
Wang was in a ‘wait-and-watch’ mode. “Let things start and we’ll see how it goes,” Wang said. “I’m feeling good about myself. There’s no point in being in the Olympics if you’re not confident.”
The competition to China comes from several competitors – some experienced, others youthful. While Saina Nehwal (India), Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand) and Sung Ji Hyun (Korea) can bank on experience, others, like Spain’s Carolina Marin, Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, have struck their top form relatively recently.
Two-time World champion Marin, despite her quiet form this season, has the winning ability and the skills to deliver a historic gold for Spain.
“I’m in my best condition,” Marin said. “I’m eager to start the competition. I feel comfortable with my group. There might be difficult matches, but I plan to control everything.”
Nehwal, bronze medallist at the last Olympics, re-emerged in late 2014 after a downhill slide and has, in recent times, looked to add to her repertoire of strokes and technical variations.
“Against players like Li Xuerui and Ratchanok for instance, you cannot stick to one thing. I’ve been moving pretty well, but my strokes have always been an issue, so I have been working on my drops and half-smashes,” said the Indian, who has benefitted from a computer software that identifies her technical vulnerabilities.
Her Australian Open victory, the last Superseries before the Olympics, has given her a shot of confidence ahead of the Olympics.
“It was a bit of a relief,” Nehwal said. “My last final before that was in China last year. I was frustrated with the semi-final finishes. It was a good win, it came after so long. But in every tournament you have to start afresh.”
“It’s never easy to play the Olympics. Even if you want to keep it away from your mind and try to believe that it’s a normal tournament, it will not happen. From somewhere news will come that it’s the Olympics and you have to perform… the Olympics is special because it’s the third time. Last time was great because of the medal. I will want to give my best.”
Nehwal is in a relatively easy group and is likely to make the last 16 against Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasertsuk. “The draw is tough. Porntip is in great shape, she created a couple of upsets in Malaysia. Next might be Li Xuerui… it’s a tough draw, I want to focus on one match at a time.”
The principal protagonists in the lower half of the draw are, alongside Wang, Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei), PV Sindhu (India), Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand) and Nozomi Okuhara (Japan). Intanon, who had a trail-blazing season, said she badly wanted to win a medal for her fans in Thailand.
“I had a difficult phase in my training because I could not train for one week,” Intanon said, referring to the doping-related charge of which she was cleared. “I’m thankful to WADA and BWF that my name was cleared and I could get back. I thank all my fans in Thailand and all over the world who supported me. I feel a great motivation to do well and get a medal for Thailand. The draw is quite tough. I’m only thinking of my group matches. Yip Pui Yin can be a tough opponent in my group. If I win my group I might play Akane (Yamaguchi), and after that, maybe Nozomi (Okuhara). My half has players like Tai Tzu Ying, Sindhu and Wang Yihan, so it looks difficult.”
The season has been tough and demanding, but most of the top contenders have arrived injury-free and hungry for success. Everything points to exhilarating contests for the Women’s Singles crown.