They are still regarded as the superpower of the badminton world, but China's shuttlers are feeling the heat from their rivals more than ever before.
World No. 1 Chen Long, on a winning streak this year with two titles on the trot at the All-England Open and last week's Malaysia Open, feels the Chinese team have lost some measure of the lead they had over their rivals.
"I can only speak for the men's singles, but I don't think the Chinese team have much of an advantage over other teams anymore," he told the media yesterday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, where the OUE Singapore Open is ongoing.
"You can't assume like before that it's a given that we will win. The competition is now extremely stiff, especially from traditionally strong countries like India, Japan and Denmark."
Indeed, Japan made history last year when they whitewashed China 3-0 in the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup before going on to beat Malaysia for the trophy.
The biennial Cup, one of badminton's most prestigious team tournaments, had been dominated by the Chinese in the previous five editions.
South Korea also stood in the way of a hat-trick of titles by China in the team event at the Asian Games last year.
In the women's singles, the last two world champions hailed from Thailand (Ratchanok Intanon) and Spain (Carolina Marin). The top two spots in the world rankings are now occupied by players outside of China - India's Saina Nehwal became the first non-Chinese world No. 1 in four years late last month, while Marin is world No. 2.
Said world No. 8 Wang Yihan, the two-time defending champion at the Singapore Open: "The players from other countries are very strong, have different styles of play and are all quite young."
World champion and newly-crowned All England winner Marin, for instance, is 21 years old. Nehwal is 25, while world No. 4 Sung Ji Hyun is 23. China's Li Xuerui, the world No. 3, is 24.
"It poses a certain level of difficulty and has definitely put some pressure on us," added Wang, 27.
Still, Chen said there are positives to be taken from the sport's new landscape, since it helps keep him and his team-mates on their toes. He said: "When the overall level of badminton goes up, it makes you demand more from yourself in order to win. That's a good thing."
Added Wang: "To be better than your rivals, you can only focus on yourself and work hard to win."
Chen begins his campaign against South Korea's Lee Dong Keun today while Wang will meet Vietnam's Thi Trang Vu.
This article was first published on April 8, 2015.
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