By Ian Ransom
LONDON (Reuters) - Olympic champion and soldier Lin Dan has already brought immeasurable pride to the People's Liberation Army, but the Chinese troops may have another source of badminton inspiration in All England women's champion Li Xuerui.
Like Lin, who she regards her hero and calls "Big Brother Dan", 21-year-old Li is a member of the world's largest standing army and hopes to bring glory to the Motherland by clinching the women's singles gold at the Wembley Arena.
China's PLA has a proud tradition of nurturing sportsmen and fielding competitive teams in domestic leagues, with recent alumni including the country's first NBA player Wang Zhizhi and former Olympic table tennis champion Liu Guoliang, who won gold in the men's singles at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Inevitably, winning the title for China usually means robbing a team mate or two of the honor, but Li has already become accustomed to upstaging her more fancied compatriots.
She stunned her top-ranked team mate Wang Yihan in straight sets to win the prestigious All England crown - the equivalent of the Wimbledon tennis tournament - in March and then rode a 30-match winning streak to force her way onto the Olympic team at the expense of Asian Games champion Wang Shixian.
Now ranked third in the world, Li has set her sights on the number one spot and appeared to be in a hurry to get there as she steamrolled Peruvian opponent Claudia Rivero 21-5 21-6 in her first-round match at Wembley Arena on Saturday's opening day.
"I never thought I would make these Olympics," Li told Reuters in an interview after the match. "Possibly it was that the other three Chinese girls Wang Xin, Wang Shixian and Wang Yihan were a bit stronger in their overall games.
"So I really didn't want to get my hopes up. It was just a case of worrying about my own game and trying to do what I could do ... Then I just got so lucky to qualify here."
Luck played little part in her trouncing of 95th-ranked Rivero, who gamely dashed to the net only to be picked off by lobbed shots. Switching to defense, Rivero was bamboozled time and again as Li landed countless drop shots from the baseline.
"I think she was the best one I've ever played with," a panting Rivero told Reuters. "You could not read her movement actually.
"Normally when you play somebody from Europe and South America, it's very easy to see what she will do with the stroke, but (the Chinese) are very perfect with the technique, so you could not see what she would do."
"The most important I think is the speed. The speed is very very fast for us."
Li agreed with Rivero's assessment. "All Chinese players are fast," she laughed.
Born in Chongqing, the Yangtze river port known as one of China's "Three Furnaces" for its sweltering summers, Li was right at home in the stuffy atmosphere of the Wembley Arena where air conditioning has been kept to a minimum for fear of affecting the flight of the shuttle-cock.
She said keeping her cool on the court had helped her emerge from China's vast pool of second-tier players, most of whom would be instant selections in other national teams.
"I'm not really sure I've developed so quickly. It's just been training and more training, very process-orientated," she said.
"I think maybe I'm a little bit more calm on the court, more able to cope when opponents start to ask questions of my game.
"I don't have any particular fears about any opponents," added Li, who faces Spain's Carolina Marin in her next match on Sunday. "I guess they should fear me."
(Editing by Alison Williams)
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