Russell: Badminton's Michelle Li a smashing success

Badminton is among the world's most-played sports, and the brightest Canadian light is 22-year-old Michelle Li, who's making a name for herself on the global scene and winning fans back home, writes Scott Russell.

Young Canadian climbing world rankings

Michelle Li won singles gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer, becoming the first Canadian female badminton player to accomplish the feat. (Scott Heppell/Associated Press)

It’s a far cry from the game many of us flailed away at while sporting bare feet or flip flops in the backyards of our youth.

And if you want to be absolutely accurate, the high-drag projectile that you smash with a badminton racquet is respectfully referred to as a shuttlecock, not a birdie.

This is, after all, one of the most-practised sports worldwide.

Some estimate that only soccer exceeds badminton's reach in terms of participation. It has also been a serious and highly competitive Olympic pursuit since the Barcelona Games of 1992.

Badminton, it turns out, is big stuff. And the brightest Canadian light is 22-year-old Michelle Li of Markham, Ont., who is starting to make headlines with increasing frequency on the global scene as her sport strives to find the spotlight back home in Canada.

“I might be dating myself, but she’s like Madonna for our sport in Canada,” gushes Joe Morissette, the executive director of Badminton Canada. “She is our star and the face of our organization from a player perspective.”

'Inspiration' to fans

At the recent Pan Am championships, which served as the test event for next summer’s Pan American Games, Li drew a big crowd to the brand-new ATOS Markham Pan Am Centre.

Li was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a six-year-old. She honed her prodigious skills on local courts at Lee’s Badminton Club and has become somewhat of a folk hero in a community where a majority of her fans have Asian heritage.

“She’s an inspiration to many, “says Debbie Tom, the secretary of the Federation of Badminton Clubs in York district. “There’s no doubt she is our sweetheart.”

There’s good reason for that.

Li is rapidly climbing the world rankings and has reached No. 15 internationally, a Canadian high-water mark. Along with Alexandra Bruce, she finished fourth in doubles at the London 2012 Olympics and just missed the podium, losing to Russia in the bronze-medal match. Add to that she is the reigning doubles and singles champion from the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico and this past August became the first Canadian woman to win a Commonwealth Games singles crown with an inspired performance in Glasgow, Scotland.

“I see so much fire and determination in her,” says Bruce of her former playing partner. “She believes she can beat the best players in the world, which she is now doing consistently.”

'Tenacious' Li

On the court Li is fiercely competitive and supremely skilled. In spite of a heavily taped left ankle, the result of an early-tournament sprain, she prowls the court like a ravenous cat against Canadian teammate Rachel Honderich in the final.

Slightly bowlegged and with impressive, powerful quad muscles, Li gets to every smash drilled at her. Then, with all four limbs extended to the maximum, she delivers precise, blindingly quick and deceptive shots back at her game opponent.

She is unafraid to dive and suffer court burn in order to dig out the most elusive of bullets Honderich fires her way.

In the end, although she is hampered by injury, Li prevails comfortably to take the gold medal before an adoring crowd on familiar turf.

“I like to be able to put myself out there,” an affable and confident Li says after the match. “I don’t like to hold back, I’m no good at that. All the hard work is done now. I just have to believe it and show it on the court.”

“The kid’s tenacious,” says Ram Nayyar, the national high performance director. He knows he’s got a rocket on the rise to hitch the fortunes of the Canadian team to and build an increased awareness of this all-too-often unsung sport close to home.

“The job for me is simple, and that’s to have her believe in herself,” Nayyar figures. “You just know she’s going to win. Even if she’s behind in a match you can sense it and you know when it’s coming. When she has that self-worth on side it’s awesome to watch.”

Fighting spirit

Posters bearing her image surround the lobby of the gleaming new venue. She gladly signs autographs and poses for pictures with the little kids who worship her. You get the sense people here have a ton of faith in Michelle Li.

She’s bound for Paris and the French Open later the same evening. She’s got another gold medal in her pocket, and confirmation in her own mind that she’s on the right track as she makes her way to the Olympics in Brazil in 2016.

“I remember an interview I heard with [tennis star Novak] Djokovic,” Li smiles. “He talked about all the very top tennis players having essentially the same skills. The difference is made by the person who believes more and who fights more. I know the same is true for badminton and for me.”

It strikes me how composed she is… how openly ambitious and honest.

Michelle Li truly believes she can be the best in the world if only she keeps her eye on the birdie.

We should all keep our eye on her.


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