Badminton: British pair bounce back to court date with world's best

Injury halted their 2005 world title bid, but Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms are set to defend their All England crown. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online

The news that Birmingham's National Indoor Arena is sold out for the climax to the All-England Badminton Championships this weekend drew a response of characteristically dry humour from Nathan Robertson, who will start his defence of the mixed title with Gail Emms today.

"Let's hope we've got some English players still left to watch by then," he said on the eve of a first-round match against the Japanese pair Shuichi Nakao and Aki Akao.

Nothing is certain in sport - as Robertson knows well enough, having injured his ankle on the day before he and his partner were due to contest the World Championships in Anaheim, United States, in August last year. But given the recent form of Britain's Olympic silver medallists their presence in the closing stages of the sport's version of Wimbledon seems assured.

Since Robertson's return to action in October the pair have embarked upon a run that has established them as the hottest performers in the world game. A semi-final place in the Danish Open was followed by two outstanding performances in the Far East as they reached the final of the Hong Kong Open, beating the world and Olympic champions before losing to the outstanding Chinese pair of Xie Zhongbo and Zhang Yawen, and then won the China Open. Since then they have added wins at the Copenhagen Masters Invitation and, early this month, the Swiss Open. It is fair to say they are on a roll.

"It's going to be a big year for us in 2006," Robertson said. "After what happened to me at the World Championships, we want to show our fans what we can do in Birmingham." If the seedings work out, they will meet the Chinese pair who narrowly defeated them in the Olympic final in Athens, Zhang Jun and Gao Ling.

But Emms cast doubt on that likelihood. "They won't make it to the final," she said. "They won the German Open last week, but I don't think it was the hardest tournament. We have beaten them about four times in the last year. It's a little bit frustrating, really. We thrashed them at the Hong Kong Open. It was nice to put them in their place."

The first English pair to win an All-England title in six years see their most testing experience looming in the quarter-finals, where they are due to meet Zhongbo and Yawen. But as recent results indicate, if they are on their game they are capable of beating anyone.

Due to a shift in the game's calendar, Robertson and Emms will not have to wait long for a chance to banish the frustrations they suffered in Anaheim - the World Championships have switched from being a biennial to an annual event, and the next is in Madrid eight months from now. Beyond that looms their major target, the Beijing Games. And their China Open win in a volatile home arena has provided them with huge encouragement.

"Winning in China was particularly good because they are gearing up for hosting the 2008 Games and winning there is our biggest goal," Emms said. "As usual the crowds out there were crazy. British supporters are getting a lot better, particularly when they are supporting home players. But they are still nothing like as crazy as crowds in the Far East. The noise is constant. You get a lot of people calling out to you ... trying to put you off. I've had marriage proposals shouted out during some matches."

If Robertson and Emms can repeat their performance of last year in Birmingham, don't rule out further proposals coming from the dark depths of the NIA.