Not every doubles badminton player can excel equally at both men’s and mixed doubles. Among those who do, not many have won nearly every major doubles title in badminton. And yet, one badminton player lays claim to both accolades: none other than Zhang Nan.
Zhang Nan was born on March 1, 1990, in Beijing China. Zhang Nan competes both in the men’s and mixed doubles categories, experiencing huge success in both disciplines. His early accomplishments allowed him to claim the world number one spot in January 2011. As a men’s and mixed doubles player, he won numerous Grand Prix and Superseries titles with different partners. He also won the World Championships, Asian Championships, and three Asian Games titles. Also under his belt are the Thomas and Sudirman Cups and two Olympic gold medals.
Zhang Nan is a worthy contender for the title of “Greatest Doubles Player of All Time.” Read on to learn more about him and the achievements that foreshadow legend status.
Destined for Success: Zhang Nan’s Junior Career
Zhang Nan started playing badminton competitively when he was 17. He debuted at the 2007 Asian Junior Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There, he competed in the boy’s doubles event as he partnered with a young Qiu Zihan. The pair battled through many formidable boy’s teams at the tournament, winning bronze in his first outing.
Months later, he competed with his compatriots at the 2007 World Junior Championships. He tasted gold in the mixed team event, being part of the Chinese mixed team delegation at the tournament.
The following year, Zhang Nan played alongside Lu Lu in the mixed doubles event of the 2008 Asian Junior Championships. The pair dominated the competition, winning gold. It was Zhang Nan’s first gold medal as a mixed doubles player.
Months after his gold medal win at the 2008 Asian Championships, he played at the World Junior Championships in Pune, India. He won silver in the mixed doubles event, tasting his first runner-up finish as a mixed doubles player.
If Zhang Nan’s youth badminton career can indicate one thing, it’s that he was on the road to success early on.
Early Professional Career
Zhang Nan began his professional career in 2009. Although it took him more than a year to get his bearings in the pro circuit, he won his first professional gold medal at the 2010 Yonex German Open at the men’s doubles division. There, Chai Biao and Zhang Nan faced off against Chinese Taipei’s Chen Hung Ling and Lin Yu Lang. The two teams battled it out for 47 minutes, taking the match into a third game. The third game went the way of Zhang Nan and his partner as they defeated their opponents 21 – 15.
Zhang Nan ended his 2010 campaign by playing in the mixed doubles events of three major opens. In all three tournaments, he paired with Zhao Yunlei, a female player that Zhang Nan would pair with for most of his mixed doubles matches.
A Successful 2011 for Zhang Nan
Any badminton fan who looks at Zhang Nan’s impressive career will point to 2011 as the player’s breakout year. In 2011, Zhang Nan captured several titles in major Badminton World Federation (BWF) tournaments. Most of his victories during this year were in the mixed doubles events with Zhao Yunlei.
January signaled the coming of a successful year as the pair rose to the top of the world rankings. Zhang Nan began 2011 with a bang at the Victor-BWF Super Series Finals. Competing in the men’s and mixed doubles events, Zhang Nan was a mainstay at the podium. He won bronze with Chai Biao and shared the third spot on the podium with Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng.
Meanwhile, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei took the title in the mixed doubles event. The pair dominated Thailand’s Sudket Prapakamol and Saralee Thungthongkam in two consecutive games.
In April 2011, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei played at the Badminton Asia Championships in China. There, the duo found themselves embroiled in a thrilling three-game match against Xu Chen and Ma Jin. The two pairs matched each other as a tie-breaker decided the third game. In a rush of determination, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei established the crucial two-point lead, giving them the Asian Championship title. There, the duo won the tournament.
Months later, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei went on to win the 2011 Indonesia Open as they defeated Indonesia’s Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir.
In August 2011, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei played at the BWF World Championships. The pair left a trail of beaten teams in their wake as they battled their way to the finals. Awaiting them were the formidable English pair of Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier.
In the 35th minute, Zhang and Zhao scored the crucial 21st point to seal the second game. As a result, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei won their first BWF World Championship title.
The duo went on to compete at the 2011 BWF World Super Series Finals in China. The pressure was mounting as Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei competed against their highly skilled compatriots in front of a hometown crowd.
Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei battled to the finals, where the skilled duo of Xu Chen and Ma Jin awaited them. In the finals, Zhang and Zhao established dominance in two straight games, beating their opponents 21 – 8 and 21 – 12.
The dominant performance gave Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei another mixed doubles title for their trophy cabinet. In total, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei won at least five titles in 2011, including the 2011 Asian Championships. Finishing 2011 strong, the pair set their sights on more gold.
Zhang Nan represented China in the Olympics twice. His first Olympic appearance was at the 2012 London Olympics, where he played in the mixed doubles event with Zhao Yunlei, as usual.
At the 2012 Olympics, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei defeated Denmark’s Joachim Fischer Nielsen and Christinna Pedersen to advance to the finals. In the finals, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei faced Xu Chen and Ma Jin once again.
Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei easily defeated their compatriots, dominating them in two straight games. The victory made them 2012 Olympic gold medalists. Zhang Nan described his 2012 Olympic victory as the most remarkable achievement of his athletic career.
Zhang Nan represented China again at the 2016 Rio Olympics. This time, he competed in both the men’s and mixed doubles events, partnering with Fu Haifeng for the former and Zhao Yunlei for the latter.
Having won the 2012 mixed doubles event in the London Olympics, Zhang and Zhao were the favorites to win the 2012 mixed doubles event. The pair made it to the quarterfinals but lost to Indonesia’s Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir. The quarterfinal loss meant that Zhang and Zhao had to settle for the bronze medal.
However, it was a different story for Zhang Nan’s men’s doubles outing. Paired with Fu Haifeng, Zhang Nan became a different badminton player altogether, supplying the speed to complement Fu’s power.
The men’s pair dominated the division, making short work of their opponents to reach the finals. In the finals, they faced Malaysia’s Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong. At first, it seemed that the Malaysian pair would beat Zhang and Fu, as they won the first game 21 – 16.
However, Zhang Nan and Fu Haifeng bounced back stronger in the second game, beating their opponents 21 – 11. In the third match, both teams fought tooth and nail for each point.
The game tied at 21 points, meaning that the first to establish a two-point lead would win the match and the 2016 Olympic men’s doubles event. In the 70th minute, an error by Goh caused the shuttlecock to hit the net and fall on the Malaysian half of the court. The error cost the Malaysian team the game, awarding Zhang Nan and Fu Haifeng the match.
The excitement and jubilation were palpable in the gestures of both men, but more so in Zhang Nan. Unlike his partner, who had previously won Olympic gold with Cai Yun, Zhang Nan had won his first Olympic gold medal in the men’s doubles.
The men’s doubles finals match of the 2016 Olympics is one of the most exciting matches in badminton. If you need proof, you can check out the entire match here.
After the Olympics: More Success and a Change of Scenery for Zhang Nan
The period following the 2016 Olympics was one of success and change for Zhang Nan. Zhang Nan sought different partners after the Olympics.
Following the Rio Olympics, Zhang Nan parted ways with his longtime mixed doubles partner Zhao Yunlei. Zhang Nan and Fu Haifeng also played with different partners moving forward. In fact, at the 2016 Yonex Denmark Open, Fu Haifeng partnered with Zhang Nan’s longtime opponent, Xu Chen.
In 2017, Zhang Nan partnered with Li Yin Hui to play in the mixed doubles event at the German Open. As the pair’s first German Open, the tournament served as a litmus test for Zhang’s new partner — one that Li Yin Hui passed with flying colors.
The two put on a scintillating display of cooperation as they defeated their compatriots Lu Kai and Huang Ya Qiong. Together, Zhang Nan and Li Yun Hui won the 2017 German Open.
Later that year, Zhang Nan competed in the men’s and mixed doubles events at the 2017 BWF World Championships. For the mixed doubles, he stayed with Li Yin Hui, and for the men’s doubles, Zhang Nan partnered with Liu Cheng.
Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng proved to be a formidable combination in the men’s doubles event. The pair decimated their competition throughout the tournament, with only the pair of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen posing a challenge.
When Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng reached the finals, Indonesia’s Mohammad Ahsan and Rian Agung Saputro stood between them and the World Championship. Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng made short work of their Indonesian opposition, defeating them decisively in two straight games.
Two months later, Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng played at the 2017 Denmark Open. The pair faced the Indonesian powerhouse pair of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo in the finals of the men’s doubles event.
The men’s doubles finals lasted an hour as both pairs battled for the title. With both pairs winning a game, a third game was to decide the winner of the open. Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng came out on top, narrowly defeating their Indonesian opponents 21 – 19.
Zhang Nan played with a different partner in 2019. For the men’s doubles, he partnered with Ou Xuan Yi. The newly formed pair’s first title victory was at the 2019 Akita Masters, where they beat hometown favorites Akira Koga and Taichi Saito in the finals.
Zhang Nan: One of the Best Doubles Players in the World
Zhang Nan’s trophy cabinet contains nearly every major title that a doubles badminton player can win, and along with this treasure trove of titles is a long list of partners he’s won them with.
Decorated and versatile, Zhang Nan is without a doubt one of the best doubles badminton players in the world.
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