15 years is a lifetime in sporting terms and when Camilla Martin won her World Championships women’s singles gold in 1999, Europe’s latest world single champion, Carolina Marin was just starting school in the Andalusian coastal city of Huelva in southern Spain.
Indeed European World Championships success in any of the five disciplines has been thin on the ground this millennium with Danish mixed doubles success in 2009 thanks to Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter-Juhl and before that the English success in Madrid 2006 from Nathan Robertson & Gail Emms. These victories coupled with the Danish men’s doubles victory in 2003 by Lars Paaske & Jonas Rasmussen stand as the only crowning glories this side of Camilla Martin's historic win in 1999.
Denmark as expected has been the common denominator in the majority of Europe’s recent world success which makes Marin’s victory this past week all the more remarkable as, let’s face it, Spain is not one of the traditional powerhouses on a continental level let alone the global badminton stage. Marin’s success is without doubt the product of hard work, steely determination and in no small way the dedication and application of a forward thinking and sometimes refreshingly outspoken and honest coach.
When Irish Eyes smiled
While many will see Marin’s climb to the top of the world as relatively short term the Spaniard first came to the fore by winning the Irish International in 2009 in Dublin at the tender age of just 16. I remember that week vividly as Carolina was virtually unknown and came through qualification to lift her maiden senior title beating some quality opposition en route. Players such as Karin Schnasse, Linda Zetchiri and Olga Golovanova fell at the Spaniards sword that week.
The thing that impressed most that week was the manner of some of her wins. In three matches Marin came from a set down to win in three games which was testament of her feisty attacking style and desire to succeed, a trait that was to serve her well in years to come not least in Copenhagen last week.
Blinkered Focus in Finland
Marin travelled to Finland as top seed for the 2011 European Junior Championships and unlike her maiden victory in Ireland this time the Spaniard was the one everyone wanted to beat. The 2011 European Juniors was certainly one of the most competitive in recent years in women’s singles as scattered amongst the field were now established seniors such as Kirsty Gilmour, Ozge Bayrak, Anna Thea Madsen, Stefani Stoeva and Marin’s compatriot and final opponent Beatriz Corrales.
That week in Finland Marin did not drop a set en route to lifting her first major championship title and the manner of her victory was yet again borne out by her professionalism and steely focus to succeed.
That week stands out in my mind for many reasons, it was not only my first gig for Badminton Europe but I remember as if it was yesterday trying to find Marin for interview throughout the days play but never being able to locate her. The fact of the matter was the Spaniard was focused on one thing and one thing only… winning. She arrived before her match and left almost immediately after. There were no distractions and nothing was going to deviate her from single objective, lifting the 2011 European junior title.
Worlds 2013 Watershed
Marin really hit the big time in the autumn of 2013 and started to occupy some column inches in the Asian media by winning her first BWF event, the London GP which took place in Copper Box Arena in London, the home of the handball event at the 2012 Olympics.
On that occasion Marin defeated winner of the silver medallist at the recent Commonwealth Games, Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour. Marin completed the double over Gilmour just a few short weeks after by taking the Scottish Open GP in Glasgow as she began to power towards the top 10 of the world ranking list.
Shortly before her double GP victories in Europe Marin had come within a hairs breadth of lifting a medal at the 2013 world championships in China only narrowing missing out in three games to eventual winner Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon. It was becoming obviously clear that Marin was the obvious successor to the great Tine Baun as European looked to fill the void left after the retirement of the Dane in 2012. The worlds of 2013 proved to be a watershed performance by Marin, she was not going to miss out again if the opportunity presented itself.
European Full Circle in Kazan
The performance curve of the Spaniard continued to sky rocket in 2014 and her European adventure came full circle in Kazan Russia in April as she added the European senior title to her 2011 junior title.
As someone who has witnessed and been present for the majority of the Spaniards success’s the European victory in Kazan, while not surprising, displayed yet another side to Marin’s character. Throughout the entire week Marin looked extremely comfortable and relaxed both on and off the court which was a stark contrast to her European junior win in 2011.
The final against Denmark’s surprise packet Anna Thea Madsen was not vintage Marin. It was the first time all week that she looked out of sorts and just a tad nervous. But like all great champions she brought it home in three games even without playing her best.
The road to Copenhagen was layered with fresh tar and smoothed considerably with a runners up spot to Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal at the Australian Super Series. But with all her success and progression not many anticipated Marin’s performance last week in Copenhagen.
Yes she was to lead the European challenge. Gilmour had already peaked for Glasgow and it would have been a leap of fate for any punter to think the Scot could rise to the challenge of the worlds so shortly after her commonwealth silver.
To discover now worlds you must first lose sight of the shore
Marin had flown under the radar on the run up to Copenhagen and the wise money was on Olympic Champion Li Xuerui to right the wrongs of 2013 and put China back on the top step of the podium.
Marin received a reasonable draw if there is such a thing at World Championship level. Knowing her and knowing her outlook she would have certainly been looking forward to the third round match with the now veteran Chinese Wang Yihan who incidentally was the last Chinese winner of the worlds in 2011 the same year Marin was lifting a European junior title.
The manner of the two game victory over Wang Yihan certainly had most people thinking that there must have been something wrong with the Chinese great not so much that Marin, in hindsight, was in the form of her life.
It was not until the quarters, incidentally the round the Marin lost the previous year to eventual winner Intanon, that the European badminton fraternity really started to believe that, like 15 years previously, maybe Copenhagen was to be the Holy Grail for European hopes of world individual success.
After losing the first game the Spaniard came back to win in three a skill she had learned and perfected years before on the European circuit. With the pressure now off and a medal secured for Spain at the world championships for the first time in their history many would have excused Marin for settling for just that… a medal.
But those who know Carolina Marin know that to discover new worlds you must first lose sight of the shore. Marin was never going to settle for bronze or silver for that matter. Gold was on her agenda and even hampered by an ankle injury picked up in an earlier round she secured her final spot with a two game win over India’s 2013 bronze medallist PV Sindhu.
The final against world number 1 and Olympic Champion Li Xuerui had it all. A match filled with suspense and drama looked to be going the way of the Chinese from the outset. With the opening game in the bag and a 13-8 lead in the second it looked like Li was about to avenge her 2013 final loss.
Marin had to change something and change it she did. Moving her opponent away from the net Marin found some traction and started to impose her game on her Chinese opponent. 5 points in a row took the Spaniard from a seemingly hopeless position to being in control and with 9 of the last 11 points took the match to a deciding game.
The final game became a battle of wits and fatigued certainly played its part with Li Xuerui calling the doctor at one point to attend to a heavily strapped ankle. All the while it was Marin who wanted to get on with the game and the trust she placed in her own shots at crucial times emphasized that the tide had certainly turned in favour of the European Champion.
At 17-17 it was Marin who stole the initiative to claim hers and Spain’s first ever world Championship gold to the utter disbelief of her opponent. For the second year running the Olympic Champion had faltered at the final hurdle as the walls of the Ballerup Super Arena closed in around her.
Europe has waited a long time for world singles success and as Marin fell to the ground in tears of joy, Europe exhaled a sigh of relief. This success is proof that Europe can produce world class talent. More so this victory should prove to every young player picking up a badminton racket for the first time that no matter where you are from or what the circumstances if you believe in yourself, trust in your coaches and dare to dream that anything is possible.
A young girl from Huelva in Spain dared to dream and look at her now. Carolina Marin World Champion, it does have a nice ring to it.
Article by Mark Phelan for Badminton Europe. Photos by BadmintonPhoto.