Shanghai: Lin Dan’s China will look to reassert their dominance in badminton ahead of the Olympics by resuming their stranglehold on the Thomas and Uber Cup titles on home ground from Sunday.
The sport’s pre-eminent nation suffered a blip at the last Thomas Cup in 2014 when Lin’s team were stunned in the semi-finals by Japan, who then beat Malaysia in the final.
But Japan axed star man Kento Momota in April over a gambling scandal, and the signs are that normal service will be resumed when the world team championships convene in Kunshan.
China’s men won the Thomas Cup five times in a row until their defeat to Japan, while their women have collected eight of the last nine titles in the concurrent Uber Cup.
Uppermost in their minds will be the Rio Olympics in August, where China will attempt to match their performance at the last Games where they swept all five gold medals.
“China always makes a strong point to prove their strength in team matches,” Raphael Sachetat, chief editor of the online magazine badzine.net, told AFP.
“Players always give their best for their country and this will be especially true for the men’s event.”
Lee Chong Wei could be one stumbling block. The Malaysian star, who led Malaysia to the 2014 final, beat both Lin and top-ranked Chen Long to win the Badminton Asia Championships earlier this month.
“The team is definitely ready for the challenge. We are all well prepared,” Lee, the world number two, told Malaysia’s The Star newspaper.
– Japan ‘eye-opener’ –
Winning the Thomas Cup would be a significant boost for Lee, 33, as he aims for a still-elusive gold medal in Rio.
But experts warn that pressure is already mounting on the veteran as he gears up for the Olympics — after losing the 2008 and 2012 finals to his nemesis, Lin.
“The pressure is on Lee Chong Wei to deliver the nation’s first ever (Olympic) gold medal,” Rizal Hashim, a Malaysia-based sports analyst, told AFP.
China will have an early chance for revenge against Japan in Group A, where they will also play France and Mexico, while Malaysia face South Korea, England and Germany in Group C.
In Group D, second-seeded Denmark are drawing inspiration from Japan’s 2014 run as they take on Taiwan, New Zealand and South Africa.
“If Japan can win the Thomas Cup, I think we can win as well,” fifth-ranked Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark told the Badminton World Federation website. “Two years ago was an eye-opener for many teams.”
In the Uber Cup, defending champions China are favourites to secure their 14th crown with three former world number ones, including Olympic champion Li Xuerui, at their disposal.
However Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, and top-ranked doubles pair Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi, could cause them problems, as could Thailand’s world number two Ratchanok Intanon.
“Japan will be their main threat, led by Nozomi Okuhara, who has beaten top Chinese players recently and (has) very strong women’s doubles,” said Sachetat.
Both competitions feature 16 teams divided into four groups, with the top two in each qualifying for the quarter-finals.