Zhang Jun has been guiding the fortunes of China’s doubles pairs for several years now. With Nanning hosting the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2019 in May, the former Olympic champion and now doubles coach and President of Chinese Badminton Association is confident his team can handle the pressure of playing on home turf as they make their final preparations ahead of the tournament. Excerpts from an interview with BWF:
The Sudirman Cup is on your home turf this time. What are your thoughts with the tournament just a month away?
We do not want make the title as the only goal to be accomplished but for sure we will try our best. We will take it one step at a time. We want our players to be in their best condition and perform to the best of their ability and fight until the final, and of course try to win the title.
You lost the last Sudirman Cup after six titles in a row. How hurt were you when you lost the last final?
We were hurt, but I felt that it was 50 per cent disappointment and 50 per cent reward. The 50 per cent reward is the valuable experience we got from the tournament. Our young players gained valuable experience. We reshuffled our mixed doubles pair and it worked well for us.
You broke up Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong and paired her with Zheng Siwei. Did that happen because Lu and Huang lost their crucial match in the final?
Not completely because of that particular match but it was one of the main reasons.
China have a lot of young and upcoming players. Do you think the time is ripe for them to make a strong challenge at the Sudirman Cup?
I feel that now is the right time because in the previous edition Japan also had young players in their team and at that time our players were even younger. Now after two years, the same players from Japan have grown and our young players have also become more mature. So, we are kind of chasers now and our players have become more and more mature and in terms of both physical fitness and skills we are on par with the Japanese.
Who, apart from Japan, would you consider the main challengers to China?
I felt that the competition is a lot apart from Japan. Indonesia, Malaysia and Denmark are very strong and also Thailand and Chinese Taipei.
In recent times, China’s women’s singles and women’s doubles haven’t been as successful as in earlier times. Are you concerned about these two categories?
It is good for the players because now there will be lower expectations. They will not feel so much pressure, and maybe when the time comes they can perform beyond their imagination.
It will reduce the pressure on the players and enable them to perform beyond their ability as they will not carry a heavy burden. And because they are competing in Nanning in front of the home crowd, starting at a low position is advantageous as the players will feel less pressure and feel more relaxed.
Do you believe your current batch of women’s singles players can attain the stature and consistency of players like Li Xuerui, Wang Yihan and Wang Shixian?
I think that is a possibility, because now players like Chen Yufei, He Bingjiao, Cai Yanyan, Chen Xiaoxin and Han Yue, with this batch of players we have formed a small group; the focus is not on one or two players. From these seven or eight players surely we can produce players like Wang Yihan and Li Xuerui.
You have experienced the pressure of playing major events at home in China. What advice would you give your team?
Competing in China, the pressure is massive. If you take this as pressure, then for sure you will have difficulty in performing. But if you convert this pressure into motivation, you will feel full of energy and accept the challenge. Playing at home, everyone surely will have expectations of you but if you don’t think about winning or losing and focus fully on the tournament, that will reduce the pressure.
What did you make of Lin Dan’s victory at the Malaysia Open?
It was unexpected, I couldn’t imagine he would do it. If you compare his performance at earlier tournaments and Malaysia, there is a big difference. It shows that physically his condition is very good, he is faster and his control is better.