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Carolina Marin looks to stay on top of Chinese challengers

Carolina Marin, the scourge of China and one of the most surprising champions ever, will attempt another improbable record at the world's oldest tournament starting Wednesday.

Spaniard Carolina Marín, badminton's number one, looks to defend her title at the All England Championships.
Santi BurgosEL PAÍS

Already the first Spaniard to win a world title, the first to win an All-England Open title, and the first to defend a world title, Marin now aims for a similar first with a defence of the women's singles title at the All-England.

Hence the woman from a country with just a few thousand players could frustrate the world's most powerful badminton nation again.

China steamrollered to 14 All-England women's singles titles in 18 years until Marin's rise to prominence a year and a half ago.

Another title here for the 22-year-old Andalusian might also generate a feeling she could win an equally improbable gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in August.

If she does it would be only the 38th for her country in all sports in 116 years of Olympic competition.

But the pressure increases on her all the time. "The toughest opponent is often myself," Marin says. "If I control myself I know I can win. To do this I must first enjoy my matches."

Occasionally she does this by remembering what a miracle it is she plays badminton at all.

Marin wanted to be a flamenco dancer until she walked past a court where a friend was playing and became captivated by the game's intricate beauty.

This had her dubbed the 'accidental shuttler'. Even without early access to high-level coaching, she still found ways to outperform a team of Chinese athletes supported by considerable resources.

Marin's nearest rival this week may be Saina Nehwal, who carries the demanding hopes of India's "blue billion" almost alone. India's cricketers can at least share the burden.

The 25-year-old from Hyderabad briefly became the first Indian woman to be world number one last year, but losses to Marin in the World and All-England finals brought tough criticism.

Some people overlook that Nehwal is frequently hampered by injury, caused by chronic inflammation of the heel and exacerbated by small feet of asymmetrical width.

She is said to have been close to quitting last year, but may have gained more fitness with a fuller training programme since the start of the new year.

Much may also depend on the condition of the two best Chinese hopes, Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan -- both former All-England winners and both also troubled by injuries -- after lengthy winter training breaks.

Some of Li's happiest memories are of her 2012 All-England triumph, which earned her a life-changing late selection for the London Olympics. It is, though, nearly a year since she was world number one.

Wang, who is also a former number one, has resisted retirement despite her dearth of big titles last year, saying she will not consider her future until after the Olympics.

She has been adding more dimensions to a style which once revolved largely around steep overhead attacks; a successful All-England could be profoundly important for her future.

Ratchanok Intanon too may be making a timely push. After becoming the 2013 world champion at the age of only 17, she endured a title drought until the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan in April, when she saved two match points in the final to beat Li.

"Now even Chinese players can lose early on," the revitalised Thai reckons.

"Japan, India, Korea have good, high-level players, and the top 10 rankings are always changing."

Intanon should have a quarter-final with Marin, with the winner possibly facing Wang. Nehwal could have a semi-final with Li or Wang Shixian, another former All-England champion from China.