In Guangzhou, China, at badminton’s year-ender, Kento Momota was expected to be crowned champion. Since his return to the circuit, the Japanese star had risen to the world no. 1 spot, just as China’s dominance seemed to be loosening-the country’s stalwarts Lin Dan and Chen Long having missed on winning a major title since the Rio Olympics.
"It’s not possible for China to come first all the time because other countries are trying to come up," explains China’s former world no. 2 doubles player Chai Biao, who plays for the Delhi Dashers in the Premier Badminton League. "Lin Dan, for example, has set a benchmark and he’s studied by all other countries. People figure out how to beat him. And then a new mark is set and those tactics and skills are imitated. Every country has its own time and the cycle will go on. But China has new players coming up. It’s just a matter of time," Chai says ominously.
In the absence of Super Dan and Chen Long though, 22-year-old Shi Yuqi has been ploughing along under the radar. He picked up the All England title in 2018. And when he met Momota, the World Champion who had cruised through his matches en route to the final of the season-ender, the young Chinese came up with an upset.
Chai maintains that his country will soon become the one to beat again. The sleeping giant, who had risen to the pinnacle, is only hibernating at the moment.
Since badminton was included in the Olympic programme in 1992, China has been the only country to have won multiple medals at each edition of the Games - winning a total of 41 (18 gold). South Korea and Indonesia come second with a tally of 19 medals each.
It’s by no accident that these results have come about. China has a solid structure of producing world-beaters, and it starts at the school level.
"The structure in China is completely different compared to other Asian countries," says Tian Houwei, the former men’s singles world no. 5 who plays for the NorthEast Warriors in the PBL. A former world junior champ and Asian championships silver medallist, Tian rose through the Fujian provincial system.
"Every school in every village, town or city is run by the government and has a well-maintained badminton court, complete with a good coach and equipment. In India you might have to go to clubs for coaching, but in China every school has its own training centre. That’s why we have players coming up all the time." What cricket is to India, badminton is to China.
From the school level, players catch the eye of scouts from each province and are then sent to specialised ‘badminton schools’, where academics is looked after, but the sport becomes the priority. "If someone comes from a village, that player is sent to a specialised school where better resources are available, more courts, more coaches," says Wang Sijie, from the Delhi franchise. "Once they start improving from there, they go up to the provincial level and then later make the national team."
Throughout that progression, players are subjected to cut-throat competition from fellow Chinese players. At the same time, they are trained to focus on inpidual strokes rather than eventual results.
"Every shuttle I hit and every stroke I play, it has to be perfect. It doesn't matter if you win or lose," says Chai. "So the pressure is reduced because at the end of the day, you know that you've given your best. That is more important for the Chinese players than winning or losing." The coaching methodology and style went through a major upheaval in the early 1990s when 1992 Olympic men’s doubles bronze medallist Li Yongbo took charge of the national team. With him came an unprecedented focus on what each player was doing, be it diet, fitness, their injuries, or even how much rest they got.
"His vision of what coaching should be was very deep," says Tian. "He was completely different to other coaches and spent more time with the students and observed them much more." Yongbo retired as national coach in 2017, but not before laying the foundation for that conveyor belt of champions.
"That’s how the team functions," Tian says. "The target is badminton, so all you think about is badminton. But when you’re an independent player like me, there’s a limit to that freedom because you have to keep the family in mind."
That intense competition from their own countrymen is what makes the Chinese so comfortable when they go for international tournaments. "Badminton training and the routine is very strict from childhood. So when we go abroad, the pressure feels much less," Chai adds.
This pressure peaks when coaches are conducting trials for the Chinese team for a certain event, be it the Olympics, Asian Games, or even a circuit event.
At a badminton centre, usually in Beijing, behind closed doors, 20 of the best players from around China are invited for trials. It’s not open for just anyone, only the best come and compete against each other and only the best of the best make it to the squad.
"The pressure there is tremendous and atmosphere is so intense," Tian says. "If you manage to go through that grind and make it, you know you’re ready to compete abroad."