Gronya Somerville pictured last year with Chinese badminton king Lin Dan. Photo: Daniel Munoz Gronya Somerville has been described as the “next female badminton icon”. Photo: Peter Rae
Gronya Somerville knew nothing about badminton when her primary school physical education teacher handed her a flyer that said: “Do you want to become the next Australian badminton Olympian?”
Just as well her teacher did.
That small piece of paper, encouraging students to attend a badminton talent identification program eight years ago, thrust the now 20-year-old Australian down a path towards likely Olympic selection for the Rio Olympics, and to minor celebrity in some countries where badminton players are revered as heroes.
“If I make the Olympics, I definitely will go and see him [the teacher] personally and thank him,” said Somerville, who is from Melbourne.
Somerville and her badminton doubles partner, Setyana Mapasa, are now ranked 36 in the world.
They will compete in Sydney next month in the 2016 XiamenAir Australian Badminton Open, which will draw top-ranked international players – many of them idolised as sporting superstars in their own countries – to battle for a final world ranking before the Olympics in August.
Among those players will be Lin Dan, the Chinese king of the shuttlecock, who is idolised throughout Asia, mobbed by adoring fans wherever he goes, and earns millions from global endorsement deals.
The two-time Olympic champion, known for throwing his shoes, shirts and racquets into the crowd to celebrate a victory, will be joined at the Sydney tournament by current men’s world No.1 Chen Long and No.2 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, and women’s world No.1 Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand and second-ranked Carolina Marin of Spain.
Somerville has already had a taste of adulation from adoring badminton crowds. She is the great-great granddaughter of Kang Youwei, a renowned scholar, calligrapher and political reformer of China’s Qing Dynasty.
“When I was 16 years old, I was the youngest player in a tournament and my coach mentioned [my great-great grandfather] and the media went a little bit crazy. That kind of like threw me into the spotlight a little bit,” she said.
“One day in the tournament I was feeling sick, so I didn’t play my match. Somehow a fan got some flowers to me and wrote ‘I hope you feel better.’ That was kind of weird, but really sweet.”
She is now regularly recognised while travelling in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and China. Indeed, a Chinese publication last year described Somerville as looking “set to become the next female badminton icon”.
Somerville and Mapasa have not been confirmed to represent Australia at the Rio Olympics. Mapasa is a permanent Australian resident, but is from Indonesia, and Somerville said there was a three-year gap between when Mapasa would be eligible to represent Australia.
“The Olympics are 80 days before that three years expires, so they need to get approval from the Badminton World Federation for that,” Somerville said.
“This is our first year partnering together and we’re both young, but the Olympics only come around every four years and, especially with the hype that’s going on, we still really want to go,” Somerville said.
The 2016 XiamenAir Australian Badminton Open runs from June 7 to 12 at Sydney Olympic Park.
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