Carolina Marin, the accidental player who became hersport’s greatest sensation, believes her toughest opponent will be herself rather than those from China, the world’s most powerful badminton nation, as she seeks another major title in the Super Series finals starting Wednesday.
This will present a slightly different challenge for the 22-year-old world number one from Spain, who is competing for the first time in the tour’s season-end flagship event because last year’s regulations did not permit world champions to qualify automatically.
Now they do, and Marin has since won a second world title as well as becoming world number one. This required a surge from last year’s 15th ranking, made possible by winning the World Championships and the All-England Open, as well as other Super Series titles in France, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Australia.
These are extraordinary achievements, given that so few people play the game in her native Spain, and that she has been outperforming a team of highly-trained Chinese athletes supported by considerable resources.
Marin only began badminton after unwittingly strolling past a court where a friend happened to be hitting a shuttlecock.
Yet she talks as if it were all far from extraordinary. “My expectation is to get the title and win the tournament,” she said. “To do that I must first enjoy all the matches and make sure I do my best.”
To do that she must cope with unfamiliar conditions in the large Hamdan stadium which can create unexpected wind drift, and a group format in which – to reach Sunday’s final – she will face top ten opponents for five successive days.
Marin nevertheless feels her biggest obstacle lies elsewhere. “The toughest opponent is going to be myself,” she claims. “But if I control myself I know I can win all the games.”
In attempting this she could have an opportunity to avenge herself on Wang Shixian, the former number one who beat her in the China Open last month, and to overcome the other leading Chinese, Wang Yihan, a former world champion.
Neither of these famous players has however landed in Marin’s group. Instead the Spaniard first faces Tai Tzu Ying, the titleholder from Taiwan, followed by Nozomi Okuhara, the Japanese player who this year has climbed 16 places to a career-high number nine, and, most notably, Saina Nehwal, the Indian whom Marin succeeded as world number one during 2015.
She also beat Nehwal in the world final in Jakarta in August. Despite this Nehwal has made incremental improvement each year, getting within touching distance of big titles which have only narrowly eluded her.
This has sometimes been insufficient for harsh critics back home, causing Nehwal to attempt toughening changes to her mind-set. She receives less censorious Indian expatriate support here in Dubai, which she has described as “not like a home away from home – it is home.”
Her strengths are consistency, tenacity, and perception, and she plays fast-paced rallies better than she did whilst admitting that Marin has “better wrist work.”
By contrast the Madrid-domiciled left-hander from Huelva creates steep trajectories and surprising angles, which, when allied to a fiery fighting spirit, make her one of the most the startling champions of all.
Other challengers for the women’s singles title will be Ratchanok Intanon, the 20-year-old Thai who won the world title while still a teenager, and Sung Ji-hyun, the world number four from South Korea.
The men’s singles event sees China’s Chen Long, the world champion, start as strong favourite in his defence of the title he won here last year.
The field contains Jan Jorgensen, the world number two from Denmark, Kento Momota, the Thomas Cup hero from Japan, and Kidambi Srikanth, the Indian number one who narrowly qualified at the last moment.
It is though without Lin Dan, the Olympic champion from China, and Lee Chong Wei, the former world number one from Malaysia who won the last three Super Series tournaments without acquiring enough ranking points to qualify.
Women’s singles draw
Group A.- Carolina Marin (Spain), Saina Nehwal (India), Nozomi Okuhara (Japan), Tai Tzu Yng (Taiwan).
Group B.- Wang Shixian (China), Wang Yihan (China), Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand), Sung Ji-hyun (South Korea). – Agence France-Presse