Zhang Ning embodies the adage that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. In a country obsessed by success with a table tennis bat or a badminton racket, the elegant Zhang was a relatively late developer, but more than made up for her slow start with a long career marked by unprecedented Olympic success.
She started her international career representing China in the Uber Cup in 1994, and it wasn’t for the best part of a decade before she made a major impact on badminton globally.
Zhang Ning won the world championships in Birmingham, England in 2003, and when she beat Mia Audina in the final of the Olympic Games in Athens a year later she joined an elite group of players to win both crowns in successive years.
With the ultimate accolade under her belt at the age of 29, retirement could easily have been an option for the woman from Liaoning but the competitive flame burnt strongly in Zhang.
She embarked on an intense rivalry with fellow Chinese player Xie Xingfang which saw them trade blows over the following years on the global circuit.
She lost to Xie in the world championship finals of 2005 and 2006, and after an indifferent 2007 season which was blighted by a thigh injury, her chances of selection for the Beijing Games looked in some jeopardy.
However, qualify she did and Zhang breezed through the earlier rounds, and fulfilled her date with destiny when she met Xie in the final.
She looked on course for a straightforward win when she wrapped up the first game in the best of three match 21-12 but Xie, whose future husband Lin Dan won the men’s singles title the following day, had other ideas.
Xie won the second set 21-10 and when Zhang was breathing heavily and apparently struggling in the decider the omens looked bad. But somehow she made her experience tell, moving from 15-15 to win it 21-18 to become the first player ever to defend their Olympic singles gold.
The victory also saw her, at 33, enter the record books as the oldest winner of the women’s singles, an honour which earned her the accolade of carrying the host nation’s flag in the closing ceremony.