China is without a doubt a powerhouse in badminton. With talent overflowing from the country, standing out and making a mark is a challenge for any doubles player — that is, any doubles player but Chinese badminton icon Zhao Yunlei.
Zhao Yunlei was born on August 25, 1986, in Hubei Province, China. Zhao Yunlei was successful in both the mixed and women’s doubles divisions, winning major titles in both with different partners. She’s famous for winning gold medals in both the mixed and women’s events in the 2012 Olympics — a feat that only she has achieved. She also won the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Championships multiple times both as a women’s and mixed doubles badminton player. Also among her accolades are more than 35 BWF Super Series titles and seven Grand Prix titles. Zhao Yunlei retired from international competition after the 2016 Rio Olympics and was inducted into the BWF Hall of Fame in 2022.
To say that Zhao Yunlei’s place in the Hall of Fame is well-deserved would be an understatement. Read on and prepare to be in awe of the achievements of one of the greatest doubles players in badminton!
Zhao Yunlei was born on August 25, 1986. She was born in Yichang, a prefecture-level city within Hubei. As a child, she was active. However, she was always looking for different ways to stay fit as she reached school-age.
In 1995, Zhao Yunlei tried badminton. Soon after, she caught the badminton bug, honing her skills at an early age. The year after, she began competing, joining local tournaments.
Just before turning 18, her first opportunity to play badminton at the international level came. She competed at the 2004 Asian Junior Championships in Hwacheon, South Korea. There, she competed in the girl’s doubles event alongside Ding Jiao. The duo dominated the competition, giving the young Zhao Yunlei her first taste of gold.
Early Professional Career
In 2005, she competed at a higher level, making her professional debut at the Thailand Open. Here, she competed in both the women’s events, pairing with Tian Qing.
Zhao Yunlei finished off her debut year at the 2005 China Open, competing in the mixed and women’s doubles events. She made it past the qualifiers, but fell short in both events. Despite coming off empty-handed in her debut years, the losses did little to deter Zhao Yunlei from competing at the highest levels.
Zhao Yunlei got her big break at the 2007 Australian International Championships, where she competed in the women’s doubles event with Cheng Shu. The duo made it to the finals to face their compatriots, Pan Pan and Tian Qing — a former partner of Zhao.
In two straight matches, Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu decisively defeated their opponents, winning the women’s doubles event. The victory at the 2007 Australian International Championships was Zhao Yunlei’s first title.
In 2008, Zhao Yunlei continued her winning ways, kicking off the year with a hat-trick of title victories. Alongside her partner, Cheng Shu, Zhao Yunlei won the women’s doubles titles at the Japan Super Series, China Masters Super Series, and Macau Grand Prix Gold.
Of the three fixtures in 2008, the Macau Grand Prix stood out as she won both the women’s doubles and mixed doubles events. For the mixed doubles event, she partnered with Xu Chen.
Zhao Yunlei ended an impressive 2008 with a podium finish at the Hong Kong Super Series, where Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu won silver. They lost in the finals at the hands of their compatriots, Zhao Tingting and Zhang Yawen.
Zhao Yunlei impressively opened her 2009 tab with a scintillating performance at the Yonex German Open. Zhao Yunlei competed again alongside Cheng Shu in the women’s doubles event. In the finals, Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu faced their old opponents, Pan Pan and Tian Qing.
Forcing the match into a third game, both teams fought hard until the 60th minute, when Zhao and Cheng took the game and the match. The win gave Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu the gold medal for the women’s doubles event.
Impressively, Zhao Yunlei also competed in the mixed doubles event of the German Open. She paired with Xu Chen and played fiercely to reach the finals. Standing between the pair and the mixed doubles title were Zheng Bo and Ma Jin.
The first game ended with Zhao Yunlei and Xu Chen winning 21 points to 18. The second game was even closer, as both teams tied at 21 points each. However, Zhao and Xu came out as the victors, establishing the essential two-point lead. The victory gave the pair their mixed doubles title for the German Open and Zhao Yunlei her second medal of the tournament.
Even in her early career, Zhao Yunlei was building a reputation of dominance in both the women’s and mixed doubles divisions. By the end of the year, she and Cheng Shu climbed to the top of the BWF women’s doubles rankings. Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu officially became the top women’s doubles pair on November 5, 2009.
The Road to the Olympics — A Path Paved With Title Firsts
The years 2010 and 2011 overflowed with title victories for Zhao Yunlei. During this time, she won notable victories in the Asian games, the prestigious All England, and the talent-stacked World Super Series. In 2011, Zhao Yunlei won her first BWF World Championship title.
Zhao Yunlei’s 2010 campaign started with the Korea Super Series. She competed in the women’s and mixed doubles. For the women’s doubles, she partnered with Cheng Shu. They defeated Japan’s Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa to claim the women’s doubles title. Unfortunately, she couldn’t duplicate the accomplishment in the mixed doubles event, making it only as far as the round of 32.
Zhao Yunlei’s First All England Title
After winning silver in the women’s doubles event at the 2010 Yonex German Open, Zhao Yunlei was set for the 2010 All England. For the women’s doubles event she remained with Cheng Shu, pairing with Zhang Nan for the mixed doubles event.
Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu put on an impressive performance in the women’s doubles event. The pair defeated the seasoned pair of Ma Jin and Wang Xiaoli in the semifinals. Sadly, Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu lost to Du Jing and Yu Yang in the finals, getting silver in the women’s doubles event of the 2010 All England.
In the mixed doubles event, Zhao Yunlei partnered with fellow doubles specialist, Zhang Nan. It was the first time the two had played together in a mixed doubles event.
The pair dominated the mixed doubles event, defeating all of their opponents in straight games. Reaching the finals, they faced the powerhouse Indonesian pair of Nova Widianto and Liliyana Natsir. Early on, Zhao Yunlei and Zhang Nan showed their prowess as a pair, winning the first game decisively.
The second game was a nail-biting spectacle of athleticism from both teams as the game went past the 21-point score cap. The game went neck and neck — so much so that it took the 25th point to win it. The second game went the way of the Indonesian team, leaving the game’s fate to be decided by the third game.
Endurance favored Zhao Yunlei and Zhang Nan in the third game as they won 21 – 18 in the 90th minute. With this, the pair had officially won the 2010 All England mixed doubles title!
Zhao Yunlei’s First Asian Games Title
Riding the momentum of her All England win, Zhao Yunlei had the 2010 Asian Games in sight. This time, she partnered with Tian Qing instead of Cheng Shu. She continued alongside Zhang Nan for the mixed doubles event — an event Zhao and Zhang would win silver in.
Zhao Yunlei and Tian Qing won the Asian Games women’s doubles after defeating their compatriots, Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli. It was a closely contested game that went the distance and saw Zhao and Tian coming out on top.
Following the Asian Games, Zhao Yunlei partnered again with Cheng Shu, winning the 2010 China Open with her longtime partner.
Zhao Yunlei’s First World Super Series Title
The 2010 BWF Super Series was held the following year on January 9, 2011. At the 2010 BWF Super Series Finals, Zhao Yunlei partnered with Zhang Nan for the mixed doubles event. Her partner for the women’s doubles event was once again Cheng Shu.
Cheng Shu and Zhao Yunlei won silver in the women’s doubles event, bowing out to Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang in the finals.
In the mixed doubles finals, Zhao Yunlei and Zhang Nan faced Thailand’s Saralee Thoungthongkam and Sudket Prapakamol. Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei dominated their opponents in the finals as they won two straight games decisively. The victory earned the pair their first World Super Series Title together.
Zhao Yunlei Takes the 2011 BWF World Championship by Storm
Zhao Yunlei had already competed in the World Championships several times before 2011, but gold eluded her each time. The 2011 BWF World Championships were an opportunity for her to capture the title for the first time — and it was an opportunity she didn’t waste.
She competed in the mixed doubles event with Zhang Nan. Throughout the event, the pair decimated the competition until they reached the finals. Between them and the BWF World Championship title was the English duo of Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier.
Zhao Yunlei and Zhang Nan dominated their English opponents in two straight games. Zhao Yunlei and Zhang Nan stacked rally after rally in the second game, winning it 21 – 7.
With this win, Zhao Yunlei had done it; she had finally won her first BWF World Championship title.
The Olympic Performance that Put Zhao Yunlei on the Map
With back-to-back wins in 2012 at the All England and Badminton Asia Championships, Zhao Yunlei was confident going into the London Olympics. The 2012 London Olympics was her first Olympic outing. According to Zhao Yunlei, it was the most special moment of her athletic career.
In the women’s doubles event, she paired with Tian Qing instead of her longtime partner Cheng Shu. Zhao and Tian put on a dominant performance as they blew past their opponents to reach the finals. In the finals, they faced Japan’s Mizukii Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa.
Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa were eager to avenge their Korea Open loss at the hands of Zhao Yunlei and Cheng Shu; the pressure was on.
However, the pressure did little to prevent Zhao Yunlei from delivering a performance for the books. She and Tian Qing defeated the Japanese team in two straight games. With the victory, Zhao Yunlei was officially an Olympic gold medalist — and in her first Olympic outing, too!
She didn’t stop there. She also played in the mixed doubles event alongside Zhang Nan. Besting pairs from Germany, Russia, Denmark, and England, the pair reached the finals to face their compatriots Xu Chen and Ma Jin.
Zhao Yunlei and Zhang Nan proved themselves to be the superior mixed doubles pair as they defeated their opponents in two straight games. Zhao Yunlei and Zhang Nan became Olympic gold medalists in the mixed doubles event.
With two Olympic gold medals in the same Olympic edition, Zhao Yunlei did what no other badminton Olympian had done before her. As of the 2012 London Olympics, Zhao Yunlei is the only player to win two gold medals in the Olympics.
The Swan Song to an Illustrious Career — The 2016 Olympics and Retirement
Few will disagree that Zhao Yunlei’s performance at the 2012 Olympics was one for the books. Without a doubt, it’s the one that put her on the map. Between 2012 and 2016 were victories at the Super Series and the Grand Prix. She also won the 2015 BWF World Championships in both the mixed and women’s doubles events!
Her victories and numerous accolades between 2012 and 2016 warranted an Olympic return. She represented China once again at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. This time around, however, she only competed in the mixed doubles event. She partnered with Zhang Nan for the event, making it as far as the semifinals. Sadly, the pair lost to Indonesia’s Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir.
The semifinal loss meant that Zhao Yunlei had to settle for a bronze medal. Her partner, Zhang Nan, won the men’s doubles event with Fu Haifeng.
After the 2016 Olympics, Zhao Yunlei bid farewell to the sport.
Zhao Yunlei — A Highly Decorated Hall of Fame Shuttler
Zhao Yunlei’s achievements in badminton cement her position as a legend and icon of the sport. Her multiple World Championships, Super Series titles, and Olympic medals warrant her place in the sport’s Hall of Fame.
Only time will tell if anyone can duplicate her achievements, or even surpass them. However, one thing is for sure: talents like Zhao Yunlei are those you’ll only see once in a generation!
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