Badminton: Golden couple seek silver lining and there is no place like home

Robertson and Emms can erase Olympic agony at badminton's Wimbledon
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The Independent Online

Halfway down the stairs at the Badminton Association's Milton Keynes HQ there is a glass cabinet containing the rackets with which Gillian Gowers secured her place in the annals of the All-England Championships - the singles title in 1978 and, two years before that, a clean sweep of singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

Halfway down the stairs at the Badminton Association's Milton Keynes HQ there is a glass cabinet containing the rackets with which Gillian Gowers secured her place in the annals of the All-England Championships - the singles title in 1978 and, two years before that, a clean sweep of singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

The discreetly placed display offers Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms, Britain's Olympic mixed doubles silver medallists, a little daily reminder about deeds still to be done on home soil as they move about in the facility which serves as their main training base.

Their efforts in Athens may have made them the most successful players in the history of the British game, but when they take to the court at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena on Wednesday they will be under pressure to give a good showing in a tournament where they have yet to make a significant impact.

The All-England Championships will offer the British public their first chance to see the Olympic silver medallists taking on world-class opposition - the field includes the Chinese pair who defeated them 15-1, 12-15, 15-12 in the final in Athens, Zhang Jun and Gao Ling.

It was six years ago that Britain last provided a home winner at the Championships, Simon Archer and Joanne Goode, who went on to win the Olympic bronze in Sydney.

Matching that performance in the event that Emms likens to Wimbledon will be a daunting prospect, but the British pair are in the kind of form which makes it a possibility, having won their semi-final in the German Open yesterday, gaining revenge on Jun and Ling with a 15-11 15-12 victory to reach today's final.

But one thing the British pair were sure of, as they wolfed their lunch in the HQ cafe, was that the Championships would be scrupulously officiated. Regretfully. Badminton, it seems, is a nasty old business on the court. "In England, the officials are very honest," said Robertson, with the trace of a grin. "You always get fair tournaments."

The inference is clear - we are back to the comments he made in the wake of the Olympic defeat, when he referred to the "needle" that existed between European and Asian players.

"We play 50 per cent of our tournaments in Asia, and it's much more difficult there," Robertson said, and Emms amplifies his point with the ease you would expect of a sporting couple who spend so much time together.

"When you play in China, the officials will call everything the Chinese way," Emms said. "And when you protest, you can hear the crowd laughing and shouting at you. We don't do that sort of thing, because we're British!"

Robertson said: "Our hardest match was probably the final of the Thailand Open in January. The officials were giving us warnings for nothing, and almost disqualified us because they were so desperate for the home pair to win. But we won it anyway."

Opposition players also exert their presence on each other - some of it physical, some of it mental. In their Olympic final, Jun gave a passable imitation of vintage McEnroe as he vented his frustrations. Robertson said: "You've got to get rid of your nice personality. On court, your opponent is your enemy."

Emms adds her own perspective: "When you watch some of the smashes the guys do, the whole thing is full of testosterone. It's 'I can hit it harder than you'."

In Robertson's assessment, he is the more extreme of the two on court, admitting that he throws his racket around and shouts at the officials, but he's not overly physical: "Well, I've never struck an official!"

Robertson and Emms, respectively 27 and 25, have been a pairing since 2001, having played together in the junior ranks. "It's not a settled life, but it's a great lifestyle," said Robertson, who has a flat in Milton Keynes, where his daughter Neve, who made several TV appearances after the matches in Athens, goes to school. His partner, Ditte, lives in her native Denmark, where Robertson lives the other half of his life as a league player.

Emms, too, plays in the Danish League - sadly, there is no likelihood of a British version in the near future - and moved last year from her native Bedford to buy a house close to the badminton centre.

Their Olympic success has altered, rather than transformed, their lives. Both appeared on the BBC Superstars programme, and A Question of Sport, where Emms was accused by her team captain, Matt Dawson, of being "very competitive". Emms said: "I was a bit hyper, but I was on a roll. I got loads of questions right. I get recognised more than I used to. I was called 'badminton queen' the other day - that was good."

But if the Olympics have enhanced their profile, the memory of their defeat - it took them nine minutes to register a point, at 9-0 down, yet they recovered to get within four points of the gold at 11-8 in the final set - is almost too hard to bear.

"I still feel gutted about it," Emms said. "When I think about us getting the silver medal it brings a lump to my throat, almost. I can't see myself ever being fully over it."

Robertson concurs: "In the immediate aftermath there was a sense of massive disappointment. You knew you might never get that chance again. I think about the final every day. But I was still absolutely happy about stepping onto the Olympic podium."

At the post-match press conference in Athens, Robertson announced defiantly that they were both young enough to come back and win the gold.

"I said before the last Olympics that my peak was 27," he said, adding, with a wide grin: "Now I'll peak at 31 for the next Games."

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