To paraphrase Rocky Balboa, “time is undefeated.” It’s true in boxing, life, and, most importantly, badminton. As many greats retire before their 30s, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who not only stayed in the game but remained at the top of it. One of the few who can claim this achievement is none other than the legendary Chinese singles powerhouse Zhang Ning.
Known for her back-to-back Olympic title victories, Zhang Ning had one of the longest professional careers in the game. Zhang Ning had an unrivaled 16-year professional career, including a reign as World Champion, Asian Champion, and Asian Cup Champion. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she was one of the consistently remaining players throughout the shifts in the scoring system. Zhang Ning was also one of the first title holders of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) Superseries. She also snatched more than 25 International Badminton World Federation (IBF) titles from 1994 to 2006. She retired in 2008 and became a BWF Hall of Famer in 2021. After retirement, she took on the role of coach for the Chinese National Badminton Team.
Zhang Ning did more than stay in the game longer than many players in her division — she dominated it! Join me as I shed the spotlight on one of the most enduring and dominant players in women’s badminton, Zhang Ning!
Zhang Ning was born on May 19, 1975. A native of Jinzhou, Zhang Ning attended the Jinzhou Municipal Sports School of Liaoning when she turned 10. It was here where she developed her badminton skills before transferring to a different school four years later.
In 1989, Zhang Ning transferred to the Liaoning Sports School. In her short time there, she quickly established herself as a young promising player, being selected for her province’s team.
She quickly caught the eyes of the National Team, who drafted her in 1991. Zhang Ning was just 15 at the time. Nevertheless, she plunged into international competition early, competing in her first international tournament in 1992.
Early Professional Career
Zhang Ning didn’t have the most impressive of starts.
After she entered the Chinese National Team, she debuted at the 1992 Malaysian Open. She initially did well in the tournament, blowing past Malaysia’s Yin Cheng Chong. Then, Zhang Nan defeated her opponent in straight sets and even prevented her opponent from scoring in the second game. By winning the match, Zhang advanced to the round of 32.
She failed to advance any further than this stage, however. Instead, she tasted elimination early at the hands of South Korea’s Kim Ji-Hyun. Although Zhang quickly took the first game, Kim rallied from behind, winning the second and third games.
Just a week after losing at the Malaysian Open, Zhang competed at the 1992 Indonesian Open. She faced Thailand’s Pornsawan Plungwech in the round of 64. After quickly winning in straight sets, Zhang Ning advanced to the round of 32, where she faced Lim Xiaoqing. As in her debut, Zhang Ning lost decisively, bowing out of the competition early.
Zhang Ning suffered the same fates at the 1992 Singapore Open and China Open. In both tournaments, Zhang managed to advance past the round of 64 only to suffer losses at the hands of older and more experienced players.
Things didn’t click for Zhang in her debut year. It was only in 1993 that Zhang Ning got a taste of what it was like to be on the podium. One of her early podium-worthy finishes was at the 1993 East Asian Games.
The 1993 East Asian Games took place in her home country, meaning the pressure was on her and her compatriots. She joined the women’s singles and doubles events, pairing with Qin Yiyuan for the latter.
In the women’s singles event, Zhang Ning advanced as far as the quarterfinals for the first time in her career. Zhang Ning faced her compatriot Wang Chen and won in a match that could have gone either way. However, the victory enabled Zhang to advance to the semi-finals to face another Chinese shuttler, Shen Lianfeng.
Shen Lianfeng dispatched Zhang quickly in straight sets. Despite losing, Zhang Ning bagged a bronze medal for advancing as far as she did.
In the same tournament, Zhang Ning and her partner Qin Yiyuan dominated the women’s doubles event. They blew past more experienced teams from their home country and South Korea. Reaching the finals, Zhang and Qin faced the South Korean duo of Kim Shin-Young and Shon Hye-Joo.
Zhang Ning and Qin Yiyuan put on a show for the hometown crowd. However, their efforts — though indomitable — proved insufficient against a more experienced South Korean pair. In the end, Zhang and Qin narrowly lost the match but won a silver medal.
1994 to 2002: Getting Her Bearings
The double-medal finish at the 1993 East Asian Games gave Zhang Ning the psychological momentum she needed going into 1994. It was in 1994 that Zhang Ning won not just her first title but multiple titles, especially in the IBF Grand Prix circuit.
Zhang Ning kicked off 1994 with an outing at the French Open. At the 1994 French Open, Zhang Ning competed in the women’s singles and doubles events. Unfortunately, paired with Peng Yun, Zhang didn’t advance past the quarterfinals of the women’s doubles event.
In the women’s singles event, Zhang Ning outshined her competitors. Zhang advanced as far as the finals for the first time as a singles badminton player. Awaiting her in the finals was Malaysia’s Yuhong Liu. Yuhong Liu won the first game by a landslide, beating Zhang 11 points to 7. However, Zhang refused to yield, coming from behind to defeat her opponent in the second and third games. The victory gave Zhang Ning her first title.
After her French Open win, Zhang bagged her second Grand title at the 1994 Brunei Open. She won the title after defeating an in-form Hu Ning in a nail-biting spectacle of skill and endurance.
Zhang Ning continued her winning ways, going on a tear on the Grand Prix circuit. From 1996 to 2000, Zhang Ning won five titles and two runner-up victories. In 1996, Zhang Ning won the Swedish Open, Malaysia Open, and China Open.
Perhaps Zhang’s biggest win of the year was at the 1996 Asian Cup. She breezed through a stacked women’s singles division to advance to the finals. In the finals, she faced her compatriot Zeng Yaoqing in a thrilling match that went the distance. Nevertheless, Zhang eventually came out on top and won the Asian Cup.
Between 1998 and 2002, Zhang slowly built a name for herself as she bagged title after title in the Grand Prix circuit and Asian Championships. Zhang Ning won silver in her All-England debut in 1998 and the Malaysia Open shortly after.
In 2001, Zhang Ning placed the badminton world on notice when she performed stellar to win the Singapore Open and Asia Badminton Championships. Zhang Ning became a podium mainstay a year later, winning the 2002 Korea Open and placing well at four other tournaments.
2003: Zhang Ning’s Breakthrough Year
As soon as 2003 rolled in, Zhang Ning had already solidified her position as a consistent up-and-coming shuttler. Zhang opened her 2003 account with a dominant performance at the Swiss Open. She scored a walkover victory in the finals over Taiwan’s Wang Chen, winning the first of many Grand Prix titles for the year.
She followed up her impressive title victory with a dominant showing at the 2003 World Championships. Fans at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, England, were treated to a match that pitted two of the best rising Chinese badminton talents. Zhang Ning bested her compatriot Gong Ruina in the finals, winning decisively and in straight sets. The title victory set the tone for the rest of Zhang Ning’s 2003 campaign.
After the World Championships, Zhang Ning set her sights on the 2003 Singapore Open. Riding on a two-tournament streak, Zhang Ning went into the tournament confident as she quickly dispatched her compatriot Zhou Mi in the finals.
She followed up her dominant Singapore Open performance with a stellar finish at the 2003 German Open. Advancing to the finals, Zhang Ning faced Denmark’s Camilla Martin. Zhang defeated her opponent in straight sets to win her first German Open.
Zhang Ning’s dominance of the Grand Prix circuit didn’t stop there, as she capped off 2003 with a bang at the Hong Kong Open. There, Zhang Ning faced Gong Ruina again in the finals. However, Zhang Ning quickly emerged as the victor, winning her 11th Grand Prix title.
Zhang Ning’s Olympic Streak
Having already amassed enough high-level experience, Zhang Ning was ready to represent China at the Olympics. Zhang Ning debuted at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where she competed in the women’s singles event.
In her debut Olympic outing, she advanced quickly to the finals to face the Indonesian-Dutch prodigy, Mia Audina Tjiptawan. Mia Audina Tjiptawan and Zhang Ning had already crossed paths at the 2003 World Championships and 1994 Uber Cup.
Audina and Zhang forced the match into a third game in the finals. With both players gunning for their first Olympic gold medal victory, the third match went back and forth.
Eventually, Zhang Ning bested her Indonesian-Dutch opponent after scoring the 11th point to win the women’s doubles final match. The victory gave Zhang Ning her first Olympic gold medal — and her debut to boot!
After the Olympics, Zhang Ning refused to rest on her laurels, winning another Singapore Open. From 2005 to 2007, Zhang added more Grand Prix titles to her trophy tally. She won the 2005 Japan Open, Singapore Open, Malaysia Open, Hong Kong Open, and China Open.
Between 2006 and 2007, Zhang Ning bagged more Grand Prix titles, including the 2006 German Open and Chinese Taipei Open. In 2007, Zhang won back-to-back victories at the Swiss Open and Singapore Open.
By 2008, Zhang Ning had again amassed enough titles to qualify for the Olympics. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Zhang Ning dominated the women’s singles event, making it to the finals as she did four years prior. The finals of the 2008 Olympics turned out to be an all-Chinese final, with Zhang Ning facing off against Xie Xingfang.
The match was fast and furious due to the changes to the scoring format. The first game went the way of Zhang as she beat Xie 21 to 12. In the second game, Xie rallied behind to beat Zhang 21 points to 10.
The match went to a third game. Again, both Chinese shuttlers were neck and neck. Eventually, Zhang Ning established a three-point lead, winning the game and her second Olympic gold medal.
Zhang Ning remains renowned for being the only women’s singles player to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals. However, having already accomplished the high point of her career, she announced her retirement in 2008 after her Olympic victory.
Life After Badminton
Retiring in 2008, Zhang Ning started a badminton academy bearing her name. In an interview with BWF TV, Zhang said that she founded the academy to train younger players and bring badminton to a broader audience.
In 2021, the BWF inducted Zhang Ning into the Badminton Hall of Fame. Also inducted that year were Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng.
Zhang Ning: The Exemplar of Resilience and Fortitude
Zhang Ning no doubt accomplished much in her 16-year career. But besides a dominant career, a legacy of resilience is what she leaves behind. As one commentator puts it, her setbacks, disappointments, and the will to carry on make her deserving of each accomplishment and a place among the sport’s greats.
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