Think of France, and badminton is probably not the first sport that comes to mind.
But a group of young people hope to change that in a country where team sports like soccer, basketball and handball dominate, and individual sports focus is on certain athletes like the judo star Teddy Riner.
They are leaders in the upper ranks Tom Junior Popow, Christo Popov AND Arnaud Merkle With Alex Lanier decided to join them.
Lanier, 18, is the number one junior in the world and joins his senior colleagues this week 2023 European Mixed Team Championships (February 14-18) in Aire-sur-la-Lys, northern France.
The hosts are fighting for one better than two years ago in Vantaa, Finland, where they are lost in the final to Denmark.
Speaking exclusively to Olympics.com at last year’s Junior World Championships, he said of the French players: “Ten years ago we were just saying, ‘We’re going to play one or two rounds,’ and now it’s more ‘We want to win a medal.’ or win a tournament.
“We’ve changed that mindset – we’re not really just (watching) Asian players, we’re beating them. It was a big change for France.”
The next generation of French badminton stars
While brothers Popov and Merklé had their successes at senior level, Lanier is adamant that they are not his “inspirations” as they trained with them.
“They are older than me, but not too far away [my age]he explained. “Working together meant it was a bit like I wanted to beat them and they didn’t want to lose to me.”
The close relationship of the quartet has made home fans believe they could make an impact Paris 2024breaking even Denmark’s traditional dominance in European badminton.
“With these three guys, we just wanted to get better and better and we wanted to improve together,” said Lanier. “When one got stronger, the others followed and it was natural.
“They showed me that we can, from France, win European titles and beat the Danes. We can beat anyone in the world; it’s not impossible.”
Alex Lanier’s badminton idols
Lanier was has been playing badminton since he was two years old, following their parents who played recreationally. “My parents say, ‘You were around the whole time we were on the court when you were about two years old,'” she recalls.
During those 15 years, he developed a passion for the sport and found idols to model his game on.
When asked about the players he admired growing up, the teenager replied:LinDan Of course. I feel it’s a mix of ‘lazy’ and strength at the same time.”
He soon explained what he meant by laziness.
“We don’t think he really moves (on the court), but he had a beautiful cheat and didn’t really need to move.”
In recent years, the promotion of the Olympic champion of Denmark Wiktor Axelsen gave the Frenchman another player to look up to.
“Axelsen… he’s just so strong and it’s unbelievable to watch him play,” confirmed Lanier. “He’s a good inspiration to me.”
“Nothing special” as junior number one for Alex Lanier
You’d think being the best in the world, the best in class, the first among millions would be something to absorb.
Not for Lanier. “I can say it’s nothing special,” said the Frenchman of his highest junior ranking, which he first achieved in August 2022 and has persisted since then except for two weeks.
“Someone said, ‘Oh, you’re number one in the world in juniors.’ And I said, “Okay, okay.” It is not [because] I don’t care about juniors, but I definitely prefer to win in seniors than in juniors. That’s more important.”
Lanier will try to do Paris 2024 but he has a tough fight ahead of him with the Popov brothers. So what are you planning for the upcoming seasons?
– Just to play with the best players in the world in Super 300, Super 500 (BWF World Tour tournaments). I definitely have the Paris Games on my mind, but I know it would be hard for me because… I’m a little late, I might say.
“For Paris, I know I’m a little younger, but for me that’s not a reason to just manage mine [expectations] and say, “Okay, I have time.” Because I don’t.
“I’d rather say I’ll try [compete] in Paris, and if not then I’m looking at LA 2028 in the future. I will do everything in my power for it.”