7. Zhang Ning
China has produced a lot of top women shuttlers, and while Gong Zhichao is pretty damn impressive (I once read an interview where Gong Zhichao described her training – believe you me, I got tired just reading it), it is Zhang Ning that I ended up choosing in my list. To me, she exemplifies single-minded determination. “The Miracle” (a moniker given to her by coach Li Yongbo) won her first title at 28, an age that is closer to retirement for than it is for starting on a journey of world dominance. But start it she did. A year later she captured the biggest prize in all badminton – the Athens 2004 women’s singles gold.
The quest to capture the Athens gold reads like a really sweet kungfu revenge epic. The woman she beat in the Athens final was Mia Audina, to whom she lost 10 years before, costing China the Uber Cup. At the back of my mind I imagine the broken-hearted Zhang Ning running miles of steps up to a badminton training monastery with buckets of water on her back as penance after the loss, vowing to train harder and to come up tops next time both of them crossed swords.
Talk about getting the monkey off your back.
Zhang Ning’s fantastic play and successful defense of her Olympics Women’s singles gold in Beijing 2008 at 33 years of age (setting the record yet again for the oldest women’s singles gold medal winner) was one of badminton’s most magical moments of all-time. Pure inspiration.
6. Peter Høeg Gade
The great Danish powerhouse, Peter Gade has seemingly played forever. He is a legend not just in Europe (he won the Copenhagen Masters in his home soil for a staggering 9 times – his ninth was bagged just 4 days ago at the time of writing), but in the world as well, having won international titles since 1994 when he was just 18. A fantastic talent, he is a very clever and deceptive player. At 33, he is still World Number 5, which is a testament to his staying power. Will he be mentioned in the same breath as the great Morten Frost? Yes.
His playing style is a mixture of offensive play with guileful courtcraft. Players need to be on their toes with this chap as he can run opponents ragged. As he gets older his play is more focused on tactics than pure powerplay, but no less interesting to watch.
Not only is Gade a great player, he is a very friendly and gracious fellow, one of the more popular players on the circuit. This comes through when the media interviews him after the match.
(Which, by the way, is very perplexing to me – players are shepherded to a mic and an interviewer immediately after winning a match, and they are still dripping with sweat, catching their breaths. Can’t they wait? Sorry, I digress.)
World badminton is ruled by Asian players nowadays, and the tremendous focus it receives in the East is something the European players are not familiar with in their homelands, as badminton is not in the top echelon of their favourite sports. Which is a shame, as players like Gade constantly demonstrate – they have fantastic players who dazzle in the world stage.
And Gade has dazzled more than most.
5. Susi Susanti
My all-time favourite woman singles shuttler. My dad and I used to call her ‘Rubber Band’, as she bounces around the court. Her court coverage was pretty amazing.
I remember her as an all-conquering badminton femme fatale, who very seldom lost the matches I actually watch her play. Her closest rival when I was watching her was Ye Zhaoying, and although Zhaoying was pretty mighty herself, it seemed to me Susi always had the upper hand.
Susi has an idiocyncratic tendency – she tended to do these front splits when she failed to retrieve an out-of-reach shot. Every time that happened I felt like clapping my hands. (Before you ask, no, the splits are not the reason she’s in this list.)
I have another vivid memory of her announcing her engagement to Alan Budi Kusuma shortly after winning the first ever Olympics badminton women’s singles gold medal. I remember thinking that while Alan was good, he was not nearly one of the best, and he wasn’t even the best in the Indonesian team at the time. But strangely he managed to win his men’s singles gold, and I suppose that made them a good pair. Shrug.
Strange things surface to the fore when you’re digging your memories.
The last 4 in the Top 10 coming up!
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Prelude
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Part 1
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Part 2
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Part 3
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Epilogue