Two prominent figures of Chinese badminton announced their retirement recently – Zhang Nan and Wang Yi Lyu. And while they were both Olympic champions, they were vastly different in terms of longevity, accomplishments, and playing style.
Zhang can lay claim to being one of the all-time greats. A clever, adaptable player who could play different roles depending on his partner, Zhang’s career stands out for its sheer depth of achievements. With Zhao Yunlei, he formed the most potent mixed doubles combination of his time, winning Olympic gold (2012) and World Championships titles in 2011, 2014 and 2015. When China needed him in men’s doubles, he formed successful partnerships with two players of different styles – Fu Haifeng and Liu Cheng – with whom he won a second Olympic gold and fourth World Championships title respectively.
Zhang demonstrated at Rio 2016 just why he was such a phenomenal player. His steely-nerved composure was evident both in the quarterfinals – when the Chinese were three match points down – and in the final, when they were two match points down. Zhang and Fu’s victory in the final – after he won bronze in mixed doubles – was one of the great come-from-behind stories of the Olympics.
With Fu calling it a day, Zhang paired up with Liu, and once again steered his partner to a memorable triumph – at the World Championships in 2017, when they weren’t one of the favoured pairs.
Zhang’s career was thus a study of longevity, adaptability and composure under pressure; while in playing style he was clever and precise rather than being an exponent of exceptional power.
After his retirement at the Sudirman Cup, Zhang spelled out the philosophy that had stood him well throughout his career:
“I think it’s probably enough to do well every day and improve a little bit every day. I hope young players can focus more on the court and focus on improving their competitiveness and trying to be on top.”
Wang could not have been more different. Defined by his power from the back, Wang established a successful partnership with Huang Dong Ping, but somehow found himself in the shadow of his more illustrious contemporary Zheng Si Wei.
While Wang and Huang did have some memorable moments in the run-up to Tokyo 2020, the Olympics were expected to be another glorious episode for Zheng and Huang Ya Qiong. However, in one of the great mixed doubles finals of the Olympics, it was Wang and Huang who held their nerve in an absorbing finish.
He did have more moments to savour the following year – such as the Korea Masters win, or finals of the All England, Badminton Asia Championships and Singapore Open that year, and it was something of a surprise when he decided to call time on his career.
In a memorable farewell message, Wang said: “I want to thank my partner Huang Dong Ping, one of the strongest and most passionate girls I have ever seen. In our partnership of six years, every quarrel, every failure, only made our understanding better, before we harvested the good memories of that summer … Farewell is always sad, but I will not leave the field, nor will I leave badminton, which is the cause I have been fighting for, and I will continue to work around the cause of badminton in future.”
Zhang’s Advice for Young Players on Olympics: