Flamenco aspirant dances rings around rivals

The fluid grace of a dancer characterises the style of world No. 1 Carolina Marin of Spain, seen here in action against Thailand's Nitchaon Jindapol during their women's singles match at the OUE Singapore Open yesterday.
The fluid grace of a dancer characterises the style of world No. 1 Carolina Marin of Spain, seen here in action against Thailand's Nitchaon Jindapol during their women's singles match at the OUE Singapore Open yesterday.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

In an alternate universe, Carolina Marin's feet would be shuffling across the floor, with her toned arms lifted high above her head.

But it is not within the parameters of a badminton court that she dances in. Nor would there be the rhythmic slaps from her racket meeting the shuttlecock.

In this other world, the women's world No. 1 shuttler is what she had dreamt of becoming as a little girl.

A flamenco dancer.

If convention had had its way, the 22-year-old from Huelva in south-western Spain would have followed her Andalusian roots and pursued a career on the dance floor.

Fate, however, took her down a vastly different path and, after a decade of toil, up to the pinnacle of the badminton world.

MUCH MORE THAN JUST A MEDAL

My focus at the Olympic Games is of course to take a medal, but I know it will be really difficult.

But I want to show my best badminton, and I want to enjoy the Olympic Games.

CAROLINA MARIN, Spanish badminton star, on her ambitions for Rio.

Marin was first captivated by a sport she never knew existed at the age of eight, when she followed a childhood friend to a badminton hall.

"It was very strange," the world No. 1, in town to compete at the OUE Singapore Open, told The Straits Times. "It was typical to watch tennis on television, but when I saw the racket and shuttle were really different, I had the feeling to enjoy, to play badminton."

But in a football-obsessed and tennis-loving country, there were few resources and even fewer playing opportunities available for this "strange" sport, played by no more than 7,000 in a nation of more than 46 million.

The pursuit of greatness meant the only child had to move away from home at 14, to places where badminton is popular, not peculiar.

Said Marin, whose father is a driver and mother works with the elderly: "It's difficult, if you compare (Spain) with China, or any country in Asia."

She spent large amounts of time training and playing in unfamiliar environments - from Denmark to Thailand, Indonesia and India.

With few comparable women adversaries in Spain to challenge her, Marin trained with the men. In the absence of sparring partners, she relied heavily on the extensive archive of video analyses she had built up with coach Fernando Rivas over the years.

Their efforts bore fruit, sweeter than anyone could have predicted.

A sensational win over then-world No. 1 and reigning Olympic champion Li Xuerui of China at the 2014 world championships catapulted Marin from relative obscurity to badminton superstardom.

She became the youngest champion in history, the first Spaniard and first European in 15 years to lift that crown. Coveted titles then came one after another, with Marin also retaining the world title last year.

"I don't think it was an accident," she said. "When you don't win any tournaments before the world championships, it's difficult. But after that I won many in a row and I showed to people that it wasn't a lucky point, or accidental."

Her meteoric rise has made her a badminton icon. It lent momentum to the sport in Spain, and even drew attention from Marin's idol and compatriot Rafael Nadal. Walking on the streets or through shopping centres, she said, became "impossible".

"If you compare life now with when I won my first title, it's changed a lot," she said. "Many people want to take a photo, or they recognise me."

And in an Olympic year, Marin is well aware that she has a real shot at the most coveted of crowns, come August in Rio de Janeiro.

She said: "I don't want to think about (it)... I know everyone wants to beat me. My focus at the Olympic Games is of course to take a medal, but I know it will be really difficult.

"But I want to show my best badminton, and I want to enjoy the Olympic Games."

In this world, Marin is the top women's shuttler, striving to become what she never knew she could be. Should she achieve what others never thought she could do in Rio, a celebration would certainly be due.

A little flamenco dance atop the Olympic podium would do nicely.

May Chen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2016, with the headline 'Flamenco aspirant dances rings around rivals'. Print Edition | Subscribe