Rachel Honderich was in her early teens when she first started training with Canadian badminton star Michelle Li a decade ago.
Since then, Li has been a friend, mentor, teammate and training partner. Every so often she’s an opponent too.
That’s when Honderich sees the side of Li that propelled her to a third straight Pan Am Games women’s singles title.
“On court there’s no friends,” Li said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to focus and not be too relentless, but at the same time you’ve got to do it.”
Li showed no mercy Friday with a 21-11, 21-19 victory over Honderich in a tidy 34 minutes. She won her first Pan Am title eight years ago in Guadalajara and beat Honderich four years ago in Toronto.
“I think it’s always going to be up there as one of the bigger tournaments and bigger moments,” Li said. “Even though this is my third one, I try to treat it as my first and just do my best.”
More focused on doubles
Honderich has focused more on women’s doubles over the last year in her pursuit of Olympic qualification. She won doubles gold with Kristen Tsai of Surrey, B.C., earlier in the day with a 21-10, 21-9 win over American duo Jamie Hsu and Kuei-Ya Chen.
Even though it’s not her main discipline, the Toronto player is still ranked 75th in the world in singles. She knew it would be a tall order to knock off the 12th-ranked Li.
“I’ve played her [several] times and I know she can turn it on when it matters near the end,” Honderich said. “It’s hard when you can feel it starting to happen and you’re doing everything you can to stop it. But she played well on the important crucial points.
“So I’m a little bit disappointed but credit to her.”
They joined a parade of Canadian athletes to the badminton podium Friday at the Videna Sports Complex. Canada won four gold and three silver medals on the day, picking up some valuable Olympic qualification points along the way.
“A dominant performance by Canada,” Honderich said.
Jason Ho-Shue of Markham, Ont., and Nyl Yakura of Pickering, Ont., got things started in men’s doubles with a 21-11, 19-21, 21-18 victory over Phillip and Ryan Chew of the United States.
Toronto’s Brian Yang dropped a 21-19, 21-10 decision to Brazil’s Ygor Coelho in men’s singles and Joshua Hurlburt-Yu of Toronto and Edmonton’s Josephine Wu closed the day with an 18-21, 21-12, 21-15 mixed doubles victory over Yakura and Tsai.
Li, from Markham, Ont., is 27 and in her prime. She entered the competition on a high after upsetting top-ranked Tai Tzu Ying of Taiwan last week in Tokyo.
After a 17th-place finish at the Rio Olympics in 2016, she took over a year off to recover from a variety of injuries. Li returned last year and quickly regained her form.
She has included more breaks in her schedule and it has paid off with strong results.
“Recently I’m on a good path and it’s going up,” Li said.
She shared a laugh with Honderich, 23, during the pre-game introductions before getting down to business. Li jumped out to a 6-2 lead by using consistent pressure and working Honderich around all four corners of the court.
Li was able to wrong-foot Honderich on a few occasions and sealed the game with a winner down the line.
Honderich benefited from a more offensive style in the second game, leading 17-10 at one point. Li refused to buckle, taking six straight points and eventually pulling even at 19-19 before converting her first match point.
“You look at her smash and her net [play], she’s very, very good,” said Canadian coach Mike Butler. “The consistency when she’s focused is second to almost none in the world.”