THREE REVERSES on the third day of the All England Championships left the so-far invincible Chinese shaking their heads in disbelief. There is a feeling in the badminton world that, at long last, the Chinese domination of the game is waning.
The signs were evident on March 5, when a feisty youngster from Hong Kong, Yip Pui Yin, dumped three-time All England champion Xie Xingfang in the first round of the women's singles. Olympic champion and second seed Zhang Ning followed her with a loss to Yao Jie of France. There were two more losses in the doubles, and suddenly it looked as if China's days atop the badminton totem pole were numbered.
If the Chinese thought the first day was an aberration, they were in for further surprises. A young left-hander from Denmark, Joachim Persson, started the nightmare for them on Thursday, beating Lu Yi in straight games. Immediately after came the hammer blow, Tine Rasmussen, also of Denmark, whipped the world champion, Zhu Lin, with a measure of ease.
More than the fact of the defeat, it was the manner of it - Rasmussen looked comfortable right through, while Zhu looked woebegone, shaking her head in desperation and playing waywardly on the pressure points.
But while Rasmussen has of late had success against the Chinese, it was the defeat of the men's doubles pair, Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng, to an unheralded pair from Hong Kong that was too bitter to swallow. The Chinese coaches, for once, looked angst-ridden, as if a sudden chill had fallen on them. Nobody in the badminton circuit could fail to read what the day meant for them - with the all-important Olympics on home turf coming up, their minds would have more questions than answers.
Cai Yun, the doubles player, dismissed the loss as a consequence of the slow shuttles in the big hall, which gave their lesser opponents an edge. "'We've beaten them many times before," he said. But the court conditions favoured them today." After a pause, he added: "'May be they've become better. They're catching up with us."
The overwhelming feeling among everybody is that it is the Olympics that is hurting the Chinese. With a vice-like grip on the game over the last decade, the Chinese are not used to seeing other teams ride roughshod over them. There have been upsets earlier, but not in the early rounds. But with the host team expecting to win gold in every event in badminton, it is possible that the pressure is building up at every tournament.
Although the players themselves dismiss these questions, this is perhaps the biggest reason for the chinks that have developed in their armour. Li Zhifeng, coach in charge of women's singles, admitted as much. Zhifeng had a grim look about him after Zhu Lin's loss. "'There's a little pressure on us with the Olympics coming up," he said. ''It was a bit of a surprise. The other players are catching up. This must be one of our worst results in recent times. But we're not finished yet."
While the Chinese have had competition in the men's singles and doubles, the other events have been their personal fiefdom. At the All England, for instance, the only interruption to their reign in the women's singles since 1997 has been Camilla Martin of Denmark, who won in 2002. The women's doubles goes back to 1996; the only break being in 1999 when a Korean pair upset them.
Of late, however, teams such as Indonesia, Korea, Japan and Malaysia have ramped up their doubles. Europe has had a tradition of having good doubles teams. The combined assault has begun to tell.