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Malaysia Superseries Premier: Lin Dan labours his way into final clash against nemesis Lee Chong Wei

For the 38th time in their amazing careers that have run a parallel course for over a decade, the two badminton giants of this generation, Lin Dan of China and Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, will clash on Sunday for the men’s singles title of the $600,000 Malaysia Open Superseries Premier badminton championships in Sarawak.

File photo of Lin Dan. AFP

File photo of Lin Dan. AFP

The gold medal clash will pit the Chinese legend, a five-time world and double Olympic gold medallist, against a three-time Olympic silver medallist and a mind-boggling eleven-time Malaysia Open winner – but who has never won the world championship.

Top-ranked Chong Wei made the title round of his home tournament with an entirely comfortable and almost contemptuous 21-12, 21-9 victory in 40 minutes over Hong Kong’s Wong Wing Ki Vincent in Saturday’s semi-finals. The 34-year-old local favourite has been in imperious form at the Stadium Perpaduan, and has yet to drop a game in four rounds en route to the final, winning most of his games for the loss of minimal points.

On the other hand, his 33-year-old Chinese arch-rival and close friend had to struggle much harder against the stocky Korean fifth seed, Son Wan Ho, for 84 minutes, and only showed his true mettle in the decider, to record a 27-25, 19-21, 21-16 win. Super Dan, as he is widely known for his prowess on the courts, has been stretched over the full distance in three of the four matches he has played in the competition, but has always looked like ending up the eventual winner.

The Chinese ace could well have lost the closely fought opening game when Son, serving at 22-21, was a helpless witness to a Dan jab that struck the tape and dribbled over, with the former stranded in midcourt. The Korean had a second chance at 23-22, but Dan saved it with his patented overhead sideline smash.

As tension mounted, Son retrieved two powerful Dan smashes when down 23-24, one of them having been hit from midcourt and appearing an almost certain winner. He then wrested his third game-point at 25-24 with a leap smash, but could not convert it, smashing into the sidelines after a lengthy, probing rally. The wily Chinese ace won the final three points with a deceptive net drop, a sideline smash and when the desperate Son smashed the shuttle outside along Dan’s backhand sideline.

The Chinese left-hander appeared on the high road to victory when, after parity at 7-all in the second game, he barged into an 11-8 lead, and powered further ahead to 14-10. But the Korean hit a purple patch with some fine controlled rallies, interspersed with beautifully angled smashes that hustled his opponent into errors.

Son not only caught up, but, with a reel of seven of the next eight points, also went ahead to 17-15. He inched ahead to 20-16, only to find Dan come roaring back to 19-20 with shots that literally hugged the lines. But all of the Chinese player’s efforts to pocket the match in straight games came to nothing when he pushed a late flick out at the baseline, to concede his third game in four outings.

Not prepared to leave anything to chance, Dan tightened his game in the decider to take 6-2 and 7-3 leads, and went into lemon-time with a healthy 11-6 advantage. And once he powered to 16-9 and 17-10 leads, it was only a matter of time before the Korean caved in. It was the Chinese ace’s ability to play two to three vital points at a blinding pace that proved to be the difference between the two otherwise evenly matched rivals.

It is this ability that Dan will have to call upon to extricate himself from the clutches of the man who is virtually a demi-god in his country, and will indubitably have the full-throated support of his home crowd as he shoots for his 12th Malaysian Open crown. Chong Wei will be bolstered by the knowledge that, despite trailing 12-25 in career meetings with his great rival, he has won their most recent three encounters.

But these victories have not come easily. Despite the fact that Dan has seemed to be on the decline over the past two years while Chong Wei has appeared to be in sublime form, the Chinese star has always managed to produce something extra when he is pitted against the man whom he has played against more often in his career than any other player.

Who can forget their 2016 Rio Olympics semi-final which went the full distance, over extra points in the decider? Who can forget the totally unbelievable defensive shot that Dan produced when trailing match-point 19-20, when he had to scramble from the net to the backhand baseline and retrieve a Chong Wei flick that had seemed a certain winner? At 20-all, could Chong Wei have been forgiven for thinking that his rival seemed well-nigh invincible at the world and Olympic level?

But the Malaysian had literally spilled his guts on the court over the last two points, to send back his greatest opponent home without an Olympic medal for the first time in eight years and three Games. So much did the effort sap his physical and mental reserves that he had precious little left in the tank against Chen Long the following day, and had to remain content with yet another silver medal. The perpetual best man; never the groom!

Still, Sunday’s match is in Malaysia, the lion’s den, the equivalent of Rafael Nadal’s beloved Roland Garros red clay. Where the crowd bays insistently for the ruddy gore of Chong Wei’s rival, whoever he may be. Where Chong Wei has ascended the top step of the rostrum on eleven previous occasions, and yearns to make it the round dozen titles.

If one might whisper a word of caution in the ears of the in-form Malaysian ace who must be slavering at the jaws to get on court on Sunday, it would be that Dan has appeared hungrier in this tournament than at any time over the past seven months since the Rio Olympics. He appears determined to mount another assault on the world championship crown in Glasgow in three months’ time.

Badminton aficionados would also agree that Super Dan’s recent form has been somewhere near what he produced in his salad days, between 2008 and 2013. Therefore, even if Lee Chong Wei has treated every one of his four earlier rivals in this tournament with scant respect, he will have to deal with the ‘X’ factor that the man considered to be the greatest badminton player ever, brings to the table.

Of course, there are other fine matches coming up on the day of the Sabbath.

The women’s singles final will see the top two seeds, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei and Carolina Marin of Spain, vie for the top prize, after the strokeful Tai outlasted Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun 20-22, 21-13, 21-12, and the two-time reigning world champion pipped the doughty Japanese shuttler Nozomi Okuhara 23-21, 21-19.

Indonesian No.4 seeds, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamulyo are in line for their third men’s doubles title in the space of a month (after the All England and India Open Super Series crowns), after literally swatting aside Japan’s No 2 seeds, Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda with a 21-16, 21-13 verdict in 35 minutes.

The Indonesians will take on the formidable combination of Fu Haifeng and Zheng Siwei, who had to sweat for 50 minutes before they could deliver the knockout punch to their Chinese compatriots, Chai Biao and Hong Wei, the No.3 seeds, by a tight 17-21, 21-14, 21-19 scoreline.

Sunday’s finals will begin at 10:30 am IST on the same court, with the stellar Chong Wei vs Dan men’s singles title bout being third in the queue behind the mixed doubles and women’s singles finals.

Published Date: Apr 09, 2017 10:18 AM | Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 10:18 AM

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