(Reuters) - A quick look at the world rankings offers proof that the region’s players remain the dominant force in badminton today with the Asian Games tournament set to be one of the most keenly contested and highest class events at the Incheon gathering.
Played over 10 days from Sept. 20, China is expected to mop up the majority of the seven gold medals on offer but several sub-plots and shots at retribution will add to the action as the drama unfolds at the Gyeyang Gymnasium.
Two players hoping to make up for disappointing campaigns at the recent world championships are men’s world number one Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia and his counterpart in the women’s rankings, Li Xuerui of China.
Lee’s misfortune in major tournaments is agonizing and as the 31-year-old winds down a career that has brought him more than 50 titles, the lack of an Olympic, world championship or Asian Games gold sits uncomfortably on an otherwise stellar CV.
When his nemesis, Lin Dan of China, failed to earn selection for last month’s world championships in Copenhagen, many believed Lee would finally shake off his ‘nearly man’ tag and win a first world title.
Lee looked unstoppable as he breezed through to the final but once again fell short of glory, losing out in two tight sets to Lin’s compatriot Chen Long, a player the Malaysian had beaten in the previous two finals they contested in 2014.
Lee also lost in the final of the 2013 and 2011 world championships. He finished runner-up at the Olympic Games in 2012 and 2008, and won silver at the Asian Games in Guangzhou four years ago. Every one of those failures came against the remarkable Lin.
Lee will have both Lin and Chen blocking his path to gold in Incheon but the Malaysian is focused on reaching peak form rather than dwelling on another near miss.
“I’ve came back from defeats many times. I just need to be mentally stronger this time,” Lee told reporters on his return to Kuala Lumpur following the world championships.
“I also think that the Asian Games will be a tougher challenge for me as China’s top two will be competing. So, it will be up to me to be strong enough to rise to that challenge.”
For five-time world champion Lin, a second successive Asian Games title would represent the perfect opening to what he hopes is a two-year cycle that concludes with an unprecedented third consecutive Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games.
“My goal is to play at a fourth Olympics if I can be there in Rio,” Lin said in an interview at the recent Youth Olympics in Nanjing. “I would be proud and honored to represent China at the Games four years after winning in London.”
In the women’s singles, 23-year-old Li will also be hoping to bounce back after her shock three-set defeat to Spain’s Carolina Marin in the Copenhagen final and add an Asian Games title to her Olympic gold medal from London.
Defending Asian Games champion and world number two Wang Shixian represents the biggest threat to her Chinese compatriot Li’s hopes of victory in Incheon, while hosts South Korea and India will also be looking to make an impact.
South Korea are well represented by Sung Ji-hyun and Bae Yeon-ju, both ranked in the world’s top six, while India have two top-10 players in the draw with P.V. Sidhu expected to go deep into the tournament along with Olympic bronze medalist Saina Nehwal.
The hosts can also expect to enjoy medal success in the men’s doubles after South Korea’s teams picked up gold, silver and bronze in Copenhagen.
Lee Yong-dae and Yoo Yeong-seong lost the final but the world’s number one-ranked pair are expected to go one better on home soil with their stiffest opposition likely to come from Indonesia’s Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, who pulled out of the world championships due to injury.
China, however, will be confident of sweeping the other four events with Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei looking to continue their mixed doubles dominance, along with strong women’s doubles pairs and both of their teams.
Editing by Peter Rutherford