Olympic title just the first step for Li
Young Chinese star has ambitions of adding to the success she enjoyed at the London Games
For many athletes, winning an Olympic gold medal may be the mountain climbed, but Chinese badminton star Li Xuerui believes she is still in the foothills.
The 21-year-old left no one in any doubt who is the best player in the world when routing reigning world champion and teammate Wang Yihan in the final at the London Olympics.
A year ago, Li was a fringe player on the star-studded China national team with a ranking outside the world's top 10. The youngster from Chongqing was not even in the Olympic reckoning until a month before the Games when she was surprisingly chosen ahead of Wang Shixian as the third member of the squad.
"It is a big honour to win an Olympic gold medal," said Li who, at the Olympic Council of Asia meeting in Macau 10 days ago, was recognised as one of the 10 best Asian women athletes at the London Games.
"But the London Olympics is definitely not the end of my career," added Li, who will be making her Hong Kong Open debut at the Coliseum in Hung Hom this week. "I am still young with a lot of room for improvement. There are many big tournaments I haven't yet had the chance to take part in, like the world championships, the Sudirman Cup and the Asian Games.
"I still have big expectations and want to conquer these major events. Winning the title in London has added more pressure because I cannot lose a match cheaply as the Olympic champion. I will turn this pressure into impetus to push me to work harder."
Li's victory in London was the fourth consecutive singles title for the Chinese women at the Olympic Games. Badminton was only introduced to the Olympics at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, where Susi Susanti of Indonesia clinched the inaugural title, also at the age of 21, followed by South Korean Bang Soo-hyun in Atlanta four years later. Gong Zhichao got the ball rolling for China at the 2000 Sydney Games, while Zhang Ning won the 2004 (Athens) and 2008 (Beijing) titles.
The 1.7-metre Li believes the Chinese women will continue to dominate the sport thanks to the depth of talent in the national squad but she is also wary about becoming too complacent.
"We hold certain advantages because of our ability to produce quality players, generation after generation, but it doesn't mean we can automatically be assured of top-placed finishes in all major tournaments," said Li.
"Many nations are catching up quickly, such as India, Thailand and Japan, while some individual players such as Tai Tzu-ying of Taiwan and some Europeans are also posing a strong challenge."
Former Hong Kong head coach Chan Chi-choi said Li had the best potential among the Chinese squad.
"She is an all-rounder, very strong in defence with good coverage of the court but also powerful in attack," said Chan. "She is still very young and no one knows how far she can go.
"But competition within the Chinese team is fierce and it's not easy to hold on to your place in the squad, even if you are an Olympic champion."
Li, however, has no fear, saying she will continue to prove herself on the international stage. "Some may think being the Olympic champion is everything and there is no more incentive to work harder," she said. "But I look at it in a simple way - the Olympic Games is just a tournament. It is important because it is the focus of the world but there are other tournaments that are equally important and I still have a lot more work to do."
Li, who took part in only three Super Series tournaments in 2011, is seeded second in the US$350,000 Hong Kong Open with Wang Yihan as the top seed.
"I have been to Hong Kong once before and I like the place," said Li. "It is a great city and now I have the chance to play there."
The women's draw features a strong line-up, including nine of the top 10 players in the world. The only name missing is defending champion Wang Xin of China, who has yet to play since withdrawing from the third-place match against India's Saina Nehwal with a knee injury at the Olympics.
In the men's singles, newly married Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia tops the list with London Games champion Lin Dan of China still on holiday.
In the women's doubles, China's Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli, who were ejected from this summer's Olympics for trying to manipulate the draw for the knockout stage, will be the second seeds, with London Games champions, Zhao Yunlei and Ting Qing, also from China, as the top seeds.