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Hall of Famer Zhao still serving with pride

By SUN XIAOCHEN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-06-27 09:04
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Chinese doubles legend launches 'new chapter' in promotion of sport

Zhao Yunlei partnered with Zhang Nan in mixed doubles at the London and Rio Olympic Games, where they finished first and third respectively. Zhao also won the London Games women's doubles title with Tian Qing. XINHUA

With her glittering career honored at the highest level, China's latest Badminton Hall of Famer Zhao Yunlei expects to serve up more success in retirement by helping the sport's popularity reach new heights.

As one of the greatest, and perhaps most versatile, doubles players ever, Zhao's double-gold feat at the 2012 London Olympics, where she won both women's and mixed doubles titles with Tian Qing and Zhang Nan respectively, has now officially been enshrined in the history book of the sport.

Almost a decade on since her epic Olympic journey, Zhao recalls those Games as the proudest moments of her celebrated career and hopes to keep inspiring the younger generation to dream big.

"Reflecting on my career, I think badminton has given me a lot, not just glory and pride in the spotlight, but also the spirit of resilience and perseverance that has carried me through all the tough challenges," Zhao said following an online ceremony to announce her induction into the Badminton World Federation Hall of Fame.

"I am very glad to see the inheritance of such spirit in the current generation of our national team players. I hope to continue helping popularize the sport among young enthusiasts. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame just begins a new chapter of my involvement in the promotion of badminton."

Along with Indonesia's doubles star Lillyana Natsir, Zhao was inducted into the Hall of Fame last week as part of the class of 2022, joining three compatriots-women's singles legend Zhang Ning and men's doubles Olympic champions Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng-who were enshrined last year.

A fierce all-around competitor in her prime, Zhao's astute reading of the game, exceptional skills in defense and attack, and steady nerves in clutch moments, saw her claim all the major titles in two doubles categories-making her a rarely seen success at the pinnacle of the sport.

Teaming with Zhang in the mixed event and Tian in women's doubles, Zhao became the world's first and only player to win two golds at one edition of the Olympics (London 2012) and the only shuttler in history to do the double at two successive world championships (Copenhagen 2014 and Jakarta 2015).

BWF president Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen hailed Zhao's cross-event success as an "accomplishment that has few equals" in an official statement.

"The Hall of Fame recognizes the best of the best, and Zhao surely deserves a place in this elite list," said Larsen, a former men's singles Olympic champion (Atlanta 1996) for Denmark.

"Winning an Olympic or world championships gold is a dream for most athletes. That Zhao achieved a double at an Olympics and two world championships is an incredible achievement."

Since retiring from competition following the 2016 Rio Olympics, Zhao, a 35-year-old native of Hubei province, has continued to work in badminton. She served as an assistant coach on the national team in the buildup to the Tokyo Olympics and has been active in grassroots promotions in schools and at amateur tournaments.

In her personal life, Zhao married former Chinese national team player Hong Wei in June 2018, gave birth to their daughter in September last year while also completing her PhD study at Chengdu Sport University.

Following the retirements of Zhao and men's stars such as Cai, Fu and singles superstar Lin Dan, China's next-gen talents have struggled to live up to the standards set during the country's golden era in the sport-2000-2012, when Chinese shuttlers won 15 of the nation's total 20 Olympic golds.

The growing rivalries with Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea, as well as the fast-improving Japanese and Indian players, have reshaped the sport's landscape. Nowadays, the major events on the BWF circuit, the world championships and Olympics are more open than ever.

However, Zhao remains bullish on China's chances of one day regaining its dominance, citing the younger generation's untapped potential and recent improvements.

"Even though Team China is experiencing some ups and downs with the level of international competition becoming much fiercer, I believe they can live up to the standards of our time as long as they keep fighting and keep improving," said Zhao.

Among all of China's current national team players, Zhao picks women's doubles pair Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan and reigning Olympic women's singles champion Chen Yufei as her favorites for their aggressive game and never-say-die spirit.

"The brave fight they put on during the Uber Cup was quite inspirational despite the loss, especially Chen, who never gave up and fought to the end. I think with that kind of mental toughness, they will come back stronger as long as they keep gaining experience to mature," said Zhao.

After losing 3-2 to South Korea in the Uber Cup final in Bangkok last month, the Chinese team has come back stronger on the international stage, with Chen claiming gold in singles at the Indonesia Masters and the Chen-Jia combo dominating the doubles in Jakarta earlier this month.

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