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All England Open History: long trousers to Lin Dan

The YONEX All England Open Badminton Championships are awash with tradition. Here, Richard Eaton takes a look at how far the tournament has come... LONG DRESSES AND TROUSERS It is hard to believe that photos of the London Scottish Rifles drill hall in 1899 show the same tournament which now has some of the sleekest clad, most fiercely trained athletes on the planet. Men wore long trousers, ladies' billowing skirts must have made any sudden movement unsafe, fruit-laden hats were worth points as a distraction, and one player turned up with a battledore! It was doubles only- singles was regarded as selfish. GALLERY: All England uncovered: six images from yesteryear However, even a more leisurely All England Open brought physical duress – distressing chilliness and troublesome drifts. In 1903, snow on the roof and fog inside overwhelmed the gas-burners. And when it moved to the Horticultural Hall in Westminster in 1910, the hall was dark. It required new technology to change that. ELECTRIC LIGHTING Only after enhanced tungsten filaments were manufactured more economically could electric lighting become mass marketed. Daylight was still considered best for badminton before World War I and play usually took place in the afternoons. Hence playing on weekdays required personal means, which part-explains the colossal influence of Sir George Thomas, an eccentrically gifted baronet. By contrast Henry Marrett, three times an All England Open champion, was a doctor able to compete for a few seasons only, and Guy Sautter, a three-time winner too, used the alias U.N.Lapin to hide his absences from hotel management studies! Badminton's popularity nevertheless increased rapidly, the Horticultural Hall eventually housing 700 spectators. Though many needed overcoats against the chill, the All England Open stayed there for 30 years. SIR GEORGE THOMAS: THE LAST OF A LINE Poor pre-war lighting perhaps explains why Sir George Thomas, below, won no All England Open singles titles until his late thirties, but two after turning 40. Altogether he achieved a record 21 titles - whilst becoming a Grand Master at chess, and a Wimbledon tennis quarter-finalist! He also spurned a horse to trek on foot for 250 miles across the unmapped Mesopotamian desert. Now though Sir George is remembered more as founder President of the International Badminton Federation (IBF) and for donating the men's world team trophy. When he retired in the late '20's, men were beginning to wear shorts, women's singles was expanding, and badminton spreading globally. PIONEERING WOMEN Badminton was more compelling than many sports because from the beginning women were important. The All England Open's first eleven women's singles titles were shared by Meriel Lucas and Ethel Thomson, friends who together were never beaten in doubles, an achievement they probably preferred. Thomson nevertheless went on to become a Wimbledon singles champion, while Lucas won 17 All England Open titles, a record unequalled until Judy Hashman matched it in 1967. Also All England Open champion at both racket sports was Kitty McKane, though the most remarkable inter-war woman was Margaret Tragett.  An advocate of the revolutionary idea of ladies jumping to smash, she  became the editor of Badminton Gazette, a best-selling novelist, and the winner of singles titles 17 years apart as well. By the time Betty Uber achieved her singles success in  1935 – she won 13 titles altogether, three with husband Herbert - ladies' skirts had reached the knee and were still rising. DEVLIN MARK ONE Frank Devlin, the winner of 18 All England Open titles, has been described as the first modern player. Born in Dublin in 1900, he apparently acquired his special wrist-snap during convalescence, hitting shuttles against his bedroom wall. Devlin pioneered badminton internationally but his well-organised aggression and tactical astuteness set standards which were not followed here. When he left in the 1930's to coach in Winnipeg and Baltimore, the All England Open was  already labelled the Wimbledon of badminton. But attitudes hostile to professionalism were ill-equipped for post-war challenges, and a big opportunity was wasted. THE GREAT WORLDWIDE SPREAD Signs of huge change appeared in 1931 with the first overseas entrant, a Canadian, Jack Parnell. Denmark was simultaneously  constructing a formidable club system, its first large contingent crossing the North Sea in 1938. England only just held off the 13 invaders, Ralph Nichols receiving a men's singles prize of two guineas for helping with that. But reprieve was brief. The next year Denmark produced three of the first four foreigners to win titles. The other was Canadian, though it was a decade before the United States began a temporary surge. Instead badminton spread through Europe and Malaya, triggering the IBF's formation in 1934, catalysing the All-England's popularity. The end of an era came quicker than anyone expected. When Nichols followed Devlin by winning five men's singles titles between 1932 and 1938, he was the last home player to do so. PEACE – AND THE DANISH INVASION When the All England Open restarted in 1947, a war-exhausted home country needed 12 more years to produce another singles champion, Heather Ward. Snow came through the roof of the unheated Haringay Arena, but such hardships didn't bother the Danes, who won every title. It was a sea change. Within two years Americans, Malayans, Swedes, and Indians arrived.  But Danish momentum remained, and when open badminton began 30 years later, it had achieved a stunning 60 All England Open titles. Eleven were won by Erland Kops' power and relentlessness, while Finn Kobbero's brilliant stroke-making brought him 12 doubles titles. Denmark had outstanding women too, notably Marie Ussing, Tonny Ahm, and Kirsten Thorndahl, and later the glamorously athletic Lene Koppen. Even though Asia's challenge diversified during the next 30 years, Denmark captured another 17 titles.  For a country of five million people, that was remarkable. EDDY CHOONG, THE MALAYSIANS, AND THE POST-WAR BOOM The Malaysians arrived with their high-speed attacking in 1950, became the world's best for a decade, and began an Eastern dominance which has never been broken. Wong Peng Soon won four singles titles, the last at 37. “Don't talk big – think big,” Wong said. “And play with a big heart.” His was succeeded by Eddy Choong, who won four singles and four doubles titles with brother David. “It's love that counts, not titles,” Choong insisted. He brought joy to badminton as well as spectacular acrobatics. Malaysians have been contenders ever since. But what might have happened had not David Freeman, who won the All England Open for the loss of only 24 points in four matches in 1949, become a neuro-surgeon?  The answer surely is - this would not be the only men's title ever won by an American. DEVLIN MARK TWO Another who represented the United States was Judy Devlin, later Hashman. She was the daughter of Frank and as influential. Winning her first All England Open aged 18, she had dad's tactical savvy and disguise, and her own qualities of exceptional control and mental toughness. These carried her to 17 titles, including a record six doubles with sister Sue. This sequence coincided with the move in 1957 to Wembley Arena, the All England Open's first satisfactory long-term home. Her concluding singles triumph - despite a sleepless night and a 1-5 third game deficit against Noriko Takagi in 1967 - fulfilled Hashman's sole remaining ambition of ten singles titles. Within two years there was a champion from Japan, Hiroe Yuki, four times a winner. But no champion from the United States has emerged in the 40 years since. INDONESIA AND THE LEGEND OF HARTONO When Tan Joe Hock won an all-Indonesian final with Ferry Sonneville in 1959, it accelerated progress of a people's sport in the 13,000-island archipelago. Almost every school, housing complex or village had a court. These two men were important. But Rudy Hartono was special. He captured eight singles titles with such regally impressive style that in five finals between 1969 and '73 he won 150 points to opponents' 40! Hartono's dominance derived from superb balance, the suppleness of his jump, the power of his smash even from deep positions, and a disconcerting ability to start in top gear. He was still at his peak when he aided the emergence of Liem Swie King, a three-time champion to whom he probably donated the 1978 title. Ardy Wiranata, and Heryanto Arbi, both All England Open champions, followed later. Hartono was a contemporary of two great men's doubles pairs, Ade Chandra and Christian Hadinata, and Tjun Tjun and Wahjudi, and fore-runner of a third, Ricky Subagja and Rexy Mainaky. But unlike their Malaysian neighbours, the Indonesians had successful women too. They produced Verawaty Wiharjo and Imelda Wigoeno, fine champions, and, in Susi Susanti, a legend. RE-UNIFICATION AND THE OPEN ERA Open badminton in 1979 was a commercial stimulus which within five years brought one of the longest sporting collaborations ever, Yonex's sponsorship of the All England Open. It spurred synthetics research which transformed rackets, and event specialisation which prevented any repetition of Gillians Gilks' 1976 feat of all three titles. It also triggered the sudden emergence of Hwang Sunai, who sensationally denied Lene Koppen a hat-trick of women's singles titles in 1981, signalling an influx of fine Korean players. One of them, Park Joo-Bong, is sometimes described as the greatest all-round doubles player ever, and another, Kim Dong-Moon, won six titles, four with Ra Kyung-Min, whom he married. A second landmark, the unification of two world governing bodies, was painstakingly crafted by Craig Reedie and Stellan Mohlin in 1981, making possible China's Yonex All England Open debut. It transformed the tournament. Zhang Ailing amazed everyone with her women's singles skills in 1982 and '83, only to be quickly superseded by younger greats, Li Lingwei and Han Aiping. It accelerated European decline, making Morten Frost's four men's singles titles particularly worthy. Light-footed and fast, despite 19 asthma-causing allergies, he succeeded where King Canute failed in holding back a tide. OLYMPIC IMPACT Badminton's greatest moment, entering the Olympics, was also fashioned by Sir Craig. Funds poured in, new nations were developed, and China's progress accelerated. Between Olympic acceptance in 1987 and badminton's debut in 1992, China produced ten Yonex All England Open champions. Amongst them were Yang Yang and Zhao Jian-hua, two spectacular airborne-attacking left-handers, and Li Yongbo and Tian Bingyi, a famous men's doubles pair. And the flow of Korean pairs became a flood. Chung Myung-hee, Chung So-Young, Hwang Hye-Young, and Gil Young-Ah helped their country to nine women's doubles titles in ten years, a sequence like a chiming clock. But badminton's most famous Olympian is Susi Susanti, whose gold medal was badminton's first. Her triumph was preceded by two Yonex All England Open titles, and followed by two more. Each time Susanti delighted English crowds with old-fashioned, modest demeanour, balletic movement, and a frightening capacity for performing the splits. Meanwhile rising standards and costs caused the Yonex All England Open to leave Wembley after 37 years and move to Birmingham's Barclaycard Arena. It was never regretted: flexible, electronics-friendly facilities helped the old tournament adapt to a modernising world. CHINA BURSTS DOWN THE DOOR China's capture of all five world titles in 1989 was an omen, though it happened at the Yonex All England Open later than expected. Nevertheless since the Olympics were awarded to Beijing in 2001, China has won 43 of 73 titles. These champions include Lin Dan, perhaps the greatest men's singles player, and Gao Ling, probably the greatest all-round female doubles player.  Another is Xie Xinfang, Lin Dan's girlfriend, the champion couple once celebrating on a giant wheel in the city centre. Previously there was Ye Zhaoying, Ge Fei and Gu Jun - and the list goes on. Hence the most remarkable thing about China's five Yonex All England Open titles in 2009 is that it was no longer a surprise. Follow us @yonexallengland using the hashtag #yonexallengland