Ratchanok carries Thailand's hopes for badminton gold at Asian Games

Ratchanok carries Thailand's hopes for badminton gold at Asian Games
Ratchanok Intanon is fighting the after-effects of a bout of flu but team officials say she should be fit for the tournament in South Korea.

Thailand have claimed only one badminton gold medal at the continent's biggest sporting showcase, in the men's team event in 1966. At the Guangzhou Games in China four years ago, the women's team showed incredible form to come within a whisker of a second gold, going down to China in the final.

This time, Thai shuttlers are targeting at least one gold medal - from teen sensation and former world champion Ratchanok Intanon, current world No 5, who has yet to win a tournament after her maiden success in last year's World Championships.

However, the challenge in Incheon will be tough, especially with doubts still lingering over her fitness in the wake of a bout of flu that overshadowed her title defence in the recent World Championships in Denmark. Still recovering, she was hit by fatigue in the one-week world competition and eventually went down to Japanese young gun Minatsu Mitani in the quarter-finals to lose her world crown.

In Incheon she faces the might of the best China, South Korea, Japan and India have to offer. London Olympic gold medallist Li Xuerui, All-England winner Wang Shixian and Singapore Open champion Wang Yihan make up the world's top three from China, who will be flexing their muscles at the September 19-October 4 Games. World No 4 Sung Ji-hyun and world No 6 Bae Youn-joo from hosts South Korea and London Olympics bronze medallist Saina Nehwal from India will also be vying for the title.

Given the quality of the competition, Ratchanok will likely need to go all-out from the very first match if she is to avoid a loss that would end her hopes of gold.

Thailand also have slim hopes of winning the gold in the men's doubles, where US Open champions and world No 15 Maneepong Jongjit/Nipitphon Puangpuapech face formidable rivals from South Korea, China and Indonesia.

The Korean's world No 1 pairing of Lee Yong-dae and Yoo Yeon-seong, fresh from taking silver in the World Championships and gold in the Australian, Indonesia and Japan Open World Superseries, are confident of winning glory for the host nation, while team-mates and world No 5 Kim Gi-jung and Kim Sa-rang will also be a major force to be reckoned with in the men's doubles. World No 2 and All-England champions Hendra Setawan/Mohammad Ahsan from Indonesia will also be there, desperate to fight of rivals for the gold.

Organisers will be hoping to avoid the kind of doping scandals that have overshadowed other international tournaments.

In January World No 1 doubles man Lee was banned for a year by the BWF for failing to show up for a drugs test, but he is back in competition thanks to a successful appeal by the South Korean badminton association.

"We have informed all Thai players taking part in the Incheon Games to guard against using banned substances," said Surasak Songvorakulphan, secretary-general of Badminton Association of Thailand.

Asked about the Thai shuttlers' prospects in Incheon, assistant team manager Sompol Kukasemkit said: "Many key players remain unfit, including Ratchanok, who has just recovered from influenza she caught ahead of the recent world meet, and young star Bussanan Ongbamrungphan, who has a leg-muscle injury. Men's singles ace Boonsak Ponsana is suffering with an ankle injury, so he might find it tough going. All of them should recover in time for the competition, but our hopes are not that high this time. Still, I have my fingers crossed and am hoping that our players can maximise their potential in Incheon."

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