Zhang Ning, one of three Chinese greats to be inducted in BWF’s Hall of Fame, is renowned for winning back-to-back Olympic singles gold medals, but the significance of her achievements goes far beyond that.
In an unusually long career for a top Chinese women’s singles player, Zhang straddled different generations, and indeed became better in the later years of her career, with her finest moment – the second Olympic gold on home turf in Beijing – coming when she was 33. The contest against compatriot Xie Xingfang, which ended 21-12 10-21 21-18 in Zhang’s favour, was a showcase of supreme athleticism and skill, and will rank as one of the best women’s singles finals at the Olympics.
The display of both contestants was a window in which to anticipate the direction women’s singles would take over the following years. As tall, willowy all-rounders, both Zhang and Xie were archetypal Chinese women’s singles players. What made their achievements particularly interesting was that they transitioned from the demands of the earlier scoring system of 3×11 to the 3×21 with equal success. Zhang’s ability to play long spells at high pace without mistakes and construct rallies before delivering the killer blow remained unimpaired even well into her 30s, and it’s a good bet that she could’ve held her own even in today’s competitive world.
Her Uber Cup debut in 1994 had a painful blow, for she fell to Mia Audina in the title-deciding fifth match. While she did play Audina several times over the next few years, her biggest ‘revenge’ victory would be a decade later, in the final of the Athens 2004 Olympics, when she beat Audina in three games. Earlier that year she had helped China win their ninth Uber Cup crown; the tenth title came at the following edition in Japan, where Zhang led China to victory in the final over the Netherlands, with Zhang again beating Audina.
Apart from the Olympics and the Uber Cup, Zhang left her mark at every major tournament. Her consistency at the World Championships was remarkable – she was a medallist at five consecutively: her medal run included the gold in 2003 at Birmingham, and silver at 2005 and 2006, bookended by bronze medals at 2001 and 2007.
At two World Championships finals, she was to fall to her closest rival, Xie Xingfang, who was also victorious over her in two All England finals. Zhang, Xie, and their teammates helped make China the indomitable force that it was in the first decade of the 2000s, before the baton was handed over to Wang Yihan, Li Xuerui, and others, in whose development she played a part as coach.
Zhang’s legacy was her courage in overcoming the modest success of the early years of her career, and proving that, given fortitude, the limitations of age could be overcome.
Gold: Athens 2004, Beijing 2008
Gold: 2003; Silver: 2005, 2006; Bronze: 2001, 2007
Gold: 2004 (Jakarta); 2006 (Tokyo/Sendai)
Gold: 2005 (Beijing), 2007 (Glasgow)
Silver: 2005 (Yiyang), Bronze: 2006 (Yiyang)
Gold: 2001 (Manila)
Gold (team): 1998 (Bangkok), 2002 (Busan), 2006 (Doha)