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Saturday January 5, 2013

Meteoric rise of a budding star

Rising star: Li is equally good at playing doubles.
She plays in the doubles for the People’s Liberation
Army team, her provincial club. Rising star: Li is equally good at playing doubles. She plays in the doubles for the People’s Liberation Army team, her provincial club.

Li Xuerui’s miraculous run in 2012 signals the coming of age of a shuttler destined to follow in Lin Dan’s footsteps.

WHEN approached for an interview two years ago at the Chinese national badminton team’s training grounds in Beijing, Li Xuerui and several other younger women’s shuttlers politely turned down my request, saying that it would be better for me to interview their more established teammates.

At that time, Li was just 19 and among the promising women’s singles players in the second stringers’ team.

Though she made some breakthroughs in several tournaments by beating higher-ranked players like Saina Nehwal of India, Tine Baun of Denmark and Juliane Schenk of Germany, Li still had problems overcoming her stronger compatriots such as Wang Yihan, Wang Xin and Wang Shixian.

But, Li completed the year 2012 with one of the most miraculous runs ever seen in badminton history. She bagged the German Open and All-England championships, Asian championships and Indian Open titles and the Uber Cup Finals gold medal on the trot.

Her unstoppable form earned her the final spot to represent China in the London Olympics which she eventually conquered. She capped off her fairy-tale run by winning the China Open, Hong Kong Open and the season-ending BWF Super Series Finals crowns, as well as finishing the year as the No 1 in the world.

“Yes, I would have to say that I have grown a lot as a player over the past two years,” the 21-year-old lass from Chongqing said in a recent interview.

“If you have seen our training before, you would be able to imagine how much effort the players put into their work. Two years ago, my senior teammates were at a much higher level than me.

“But it was good for me as I could improve my game a great deal when sparring against them. I think you cannot simply say that my achievements in 2012 were because I put in more effort than others. It’s just that being part of this excellent team helps you catch up with your teammates.”

She said her wins in the German Open and All-England championships in March gave her self-belief that she was a strong contender for a third spot in the Olympics. (Li was eventually selected together with Wang Yihan and Wang Xin for the Games.)

She said her meteoric rise to the top of the game was made easier when her opponents had little knowledge of her game as she had only been sent to smaller tournaments in 2010 and 2011.

“Many of my opponents focused much more on my higher-ranked teammates. I had an edge over others because they did not know my game well and I might catch them flat-footed when playing against them.

“But during the Olympics, I believe that the opponents would have studied my game carefully.

“Perhaps they would have to spend more time to study my strengths and weaknesses as they have not found effective ways to counter my game yet,” she said.

Li’s career has just taken flight and she said she could not rest on her laurels but rather polish up her game even more.

“I need to perfect my skills and style of play. I cannot depend on areas that I am strong at and leave too many loopholes in other areas of my game.

“My coaches have given me advice but once you are playing at this level, you will have your own thoughts on how to improve your game more.”

Li first picked up a racquet at seven when her parents sent her to a boarding sports school in the sprawling Chongqing city.

Initially, she did not like the sport at all, not to mention the strenuous training and homesickness being away from her parents.

After achieving some good results in junior competitions, she developed a greater interest. When she joined the national team in 2008, she knew that she would have to persist till the end.

“When you are competing in this environment with your teammates, you will start setting bigger goals such as becoming the world champion one day.

“After that, you will think of other things and strive to do the best to be the best in the world,” she said.

After the Olympics triumph, Li continued with her training and she did not have much time celebrating her victory with her family.

She just took the opportunity to meet her family for a short time during a celebration activity organised by the Chongqing sports authority in her hometown.

Many badminton fans might not know that Li is equally good at playing doubles. She plays in the doubles for the People’s Liberation Army team, her provincial club.

She noted that some skills and techniques that she developed in doubles have helped her create more attacking opportunities in her singles games.

So, who does she look up to? She gave a definite answer: Lin Dan – the two-time Olympic and four-time World champion.

“I like what he wrote in his autobiography: ‘Do not think that because you’re not in good form today then you can simply lose your match’.

“I’m not a star chaser but indeed he is a role model. During his training, he works very hard and has very high expectations. I’ll try to follow in his footsteps,” she added.

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