Just when you think it can’t get worse, it does.
What really happened on Saturday at the Yonex Denmark Open? Nearly every top Chinese player or pair – the very best of them – fell to non-Chinese opponents – which might have cheered up neutral observers, but surely something was wrong.
The world No.1 and Olympic champions, Qing Tian and Zhao Yunlei, trailed a young Japanese pair 1-11 in the third game, and duly lost it. Another Olympic gold medallist pair, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei, lost their mixed doubles semifinal in straight games. Worst of all was the feared world No.3, Chen Long, who played so obviously below par against his compatriot Du Pengyu that the two were booed off court. One has never seen such indifferent play from the Chinese against non-Chinese opponents.
And then there was world No.1 Wang Yihan’s unconvincing acting performance against Saina Nehwal – the Chinese girl picked up an ‘injury’ just at the 20-second break in the second game and hobbled about for a while before retiring.
Perhaps the only match strictly on the level was Juliane Schenk’s finely orchestrated victory over world No.8 Jiang Yanjiao.
What on earth was going on?
The talk in badminton circles is that the Chinese either didn’t come prepared, or they wanted to go through the motions of participating in a Premier Superseries event. Perhaps their post-Olympic exertions at felicitations have been too much – but that doesn’t quite sound like the Chinese way.
The most obvious possibility is that they really don’t care anymore about the Superseries events, even the ‘Premier’ ones like the Denmark Open. Perhaps all they really care about are the Asian Games, the World Championships, the Olympics, and team events like the Sudirman Cup, Uber Cup or Thomas Cup, where they seek to make a statement.
But what these performances have done is to undermine the efforts of the victor. One is really not sure anymore. In that sense, it’s not different from other forms of abuse of the spirit of sport. We cannot castigate them without hearing their perspective, but is there ever a justification for deliberately playing below par?
And what of the audience? No matter how these antics are defended in cultural terms, it amounts to cheating the paying public which is responsible for keeping the game alive. Its’ time for everyone concerned with the game to contemplate the way forward. If a Superseries event cannot elicit the best efforts of players, what’s left of the game?