All the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not help world No.1 and top-seeded Malaysian, Lee Chong Wei, overcome the mental block he has while crossing swords with his greatest rival and nemesis, Lin Dan of China, in all the matches that really matter.
The jampacked partisan crowd at Sarawak’s Stadium Perpaduan howled itself hoarse and did everything else it possibly could to lift up their man as he tried hard for an unprecedented 12th Malaysia Open Super Series Premier men’s singles crown, struggling constantly with the demons in his mind and the virtuosity of the badminton legend on the other side of the net.
But when the dust settled at the end of an absorbing battle that lasted five minutes short of the hour mark, the charismatic Chinese southpaw was left with his heavily tattooed arms aloft in triumph on the back of a 21-19, 21-14 victory, the clash featuring badminton of the highest order that demanded mental strength as much as physical and technical prowess.
Right through the course of the six-day competition that offered prize money of $600,000, Chong Wei had appeared to be in supreme form, dismantling all opposition in straight games, and for the loss of minimal points. On the other hand, Dan had been taken the full distance in three of his four encounters en route to the final, though he appeared to improve with each outing.
But for Lee Chong Wei, who has jousted with Super Dan on 37 previous occasions over the last dozen years, it should have been a case of “forewarned is forearmed.” The wily Chinese left-hander was doing nothing more than playing within himself, and building up slowly for the final denouement.
Certainly, Super Dan was better prepared than he had been at even the semi-final stage of the Rio Olympics, when he had lost to Chong Wei over the extra points in the third and deciding game of a rousing, rip-roaring battle. And when the occasion did eventually arrive, he went all out and held absolutely nothing back.
This was a player that had smashed so sparingly throughout his previous four matches that there were questions of whether he had forgotten that he had a killer smash. Against his bitter arch-rival, the Chinese left-hander consistently produced smashes that crossed the 350 kmph mark on the speed gun, and followed them up to the net like a meteor to put away any blocked return even marginally above the tape.
There was never any doubt about Lin Dan’s mental strength and temperament, and his new-found hunger, but he buttressed these attributes with the cat-like speed of old, controlling the length of his strokes as well as the net so beautifully that his Malaysian antagonist was left shell-shocked.
How on Earth could this man get that heavily muscled left arm behind his ear and rain down with such humongous power those dreaded overhead smashes that consistently brushed the sideline on his rival’s backhand flank? How could he replicate those panther-like court movements of his halcyon days of the 2008-2013 period? And how on Earth did one counter a sustained onslaught like that!
Lee Chong Wei was well and truly beaten, first on the court by the speed and power of this chameleon of his worst nightmares, and then in the mind, as he failed to find a counter to the consistently aggressive play and niggardly sprinkling of errors on his opponent’s part.
There is really no need to trace the course and trend of the match by recounting the points-won, points-lost patterns; the five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist was always in control, and never looked like he would end up second-best in his rival’s own den, and in the presence of the latter’s adoring supporters.
On the other hand, it was almost impossible to predict the women’s singles winner in the first two games of their title clash, as the world’s top two ranked players fought tooth and nail for the prestigious crown. But it was in the fitness of things that the world’s most attractive stroke-maker and top-ranked player, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, narrowly pipped the reigning world, Olympic and European champion, Carolina Marin, 23-25, 22-20, 21-13 after 86 minutes of top-quality badminton.
Tai conclusively demonstrated several qualities on court, in addition to unfurling her rich repertoire of strokes mainly in the deciding stanza of their wonderfully absorbing encounter – fitness, speed, temperament and the ability to strategise, depending on which opponent she was facing.
The 22 year old Taiwanese instinctively seemed to realise that it would be fruitless to indulge in high-risk strokeplay as long as Marin, one year her senior, remained supremely mobile on her feet, as she usually is. So she worked at playing long rallies and remaining steady rather than flashy, and making Marin play the extra stroke to win points.
The strategy eventually worked, but it almost backfired, as the Spaniard looked all set to win in two straight games. It was only when Tai got her nose ahead at the tape in the bitterly fought second stanza, that the back of Marin’s resistance was broken. Fighter that the world champion undoubtedly is, she was prepared to grit it out in the decider, but her legs let her down. And Tai, sensing her rival’s relative sluggishness, went for the kill, and produced the eye-filling strokes she is known to possess.
If both the individual singles finals had produced tremendous drama and badminton of the highest order, the paired events did not lag by much. As expected, the fourth seeded Indonesian combination of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamulyo continued on the unbeaten run of their last three tournaments by taking the men’s doubles title at the expense of the unseeded Chinese combination of Fu Haifeng and Zheng Siwei, though they were made to sweat for 41 minutes before they could record a 21-14, 14-21, 21-12 triumph.
The best player of the foursome was undoubtedly the wily veteran southpaw, Fu Haifeng, who had bagged four World Championship titles as well as the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics and the silver at the 2008 Beijing Games with his former speedy partner Cai Yun, and is considered one of the greatest doubles players in history.
The Indonesians, who are currently in red-hot form – as can be seen by their hat-trick of wins at the All England, India Open, and now, Malaysia Open Super Series tournaments – were somehow able to blunt the impressive power of the Chinese old-timer, who did tire a bit in the closing reaches of the closely fought encounter. It could also be said that Zhang Siwei did not combine quite as well with the hard-hitting left-hander as Cai Yun had, in the pair’s heyday.
Siwei, however, did not leave Sarawak without a gold medal. He combined far better with Chen Qingchen in the mixed doubles, as the pair justified their top seeding with a workmanlike 21-15, 21-18 victory over compatriots, Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong, who had been seeded three places behind them.
Yaqiong also had the misfortune of ending runner-up in the women’s doubles, in the company of Tang Jinhua, in a battle between two unseeded teams. They went down at 17-21, 21-18, 12-21 to a Japanese combination that has been making waves of late on the international circuit, Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota, ranked only third in their country behind the Ayaka Takahashi - Misaki Matsutomo and Koharu Yonemoto – Shiho Tanaka combinations, and one spot ahead of Naoko Fukuman - Kurumi Yonao.
It was unfortunate for Japan as a country that the top three combinations they fielded at the Malaysia Open were all lumped in the top half by the luck of the draw. The least fancied duo were up to the task of knocking out the seventh-seeded Yonao-Fukuman pair at 22-20, 21-12, in the second round, and the top-ranked Takahashi-Matsutomo pair at 21-18, 21-19 in the semi-finals. In between, they lowered the colours of the No.4 seeds from China, Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan, at 21-18, 25-23.
The remarkable success of the Fukushima-Hirota combine gives Japan a most pleasant headache in deciding which two of their four crack combinations they could field during the forthcoming Uber Cup international women’s team competition.
Along with singles exponents, Akane Yamaguchi, Nozomi Okuhara, Minatsu Mitani and Sayaka Sato, Japan boasts a truly formidable line-up against any country, as the Land of the Rising Sun attempts to go one better than the runner-up position it achieved in New Delhi during the 2014 edition of the Uber Cup.
Published Date: Apr 10, 2017 01:54 pm | Updated Date: Apr 10, 2017 01:54 pm