So there is a God, after all! Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei, having lived in the imposing shadow of China's Lin Dan throughout their concurrent badminton careers, and after losing the singles gold medal to the Chinese legend at both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, finally found the Great Reaper smiling down on him on Friday, and compensating him for all those years of pain and anguish.
At the end of a magnificent 82-minute men's singles semi-final clash at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Lee was able to wrap up a pulsating, nerve-jangling 15-21, 21-11, 22-20 win over the five-time world champion and narrow the head-to-head career record between the two to 12-25.
When the Malaysian, at the end of a lengthy rally on his fourth match-point at 21-20 employed a deceptive crosscourt forehand slice to catch Lin back-pedalling, he simply sank to his knees, overwhelmed by joy and relief that he had finally outwitted his great adversary in a crucial match that counted.
Even as jubilant spectators stood and applauded Lee's feat, there would have been several misty eyes and choked throats upon the realisation that the popular Malaysian had finally conquered his hoodoo towards what is likely to be the fag end of his great career. Lee will turn 34 in October this year, and is as unlikely to feature in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as his legendary Chinese rival, one year his junior.
As has almost always happened between the two gladiators, the match turned on a mere couple of points and scaled dizzying heights in its closing moments. Super Dan, whose current level of fitness has been seen to be a shade lower than that of his arch-rival, but whose steely temperament has always come to his aid in a tight situation, did all the front running, and roared to a sizeable lead in the opening game virtually before Lee had got his bearings.
The Chinese star was as speedy, positive and aggressive in the opening game as he had been in the previous round against India's Kidambi Srikanth, seizing the smallest of opportunities to exploit the tiniest of gaps in his opponent's armour. His netplay was also of the highest order, allowing him to pounce on weak clearances to the midcourt, and employ his deadly leaping overhead sideline smashes.
While Lin had thrashed a visibly nervous Srikanth at 21-6 in their opening stanza on the previous day, he encountered more resistance from Lee, and had to pull out all stops in the second half of the game, to keep Lee from drawing level. The effort visibly drained his now limited resources; and he preferred to be a passive spectator in the second game when his Malaysian rival was in full cry.
There was absolutely nothing to separate the two players through most of the decider. Never more than a point or two, as the lunge-and-parry duel escalated into the most riveting exhibition of top-class badminton that anyone could hope to see. Not only were there spectacular strokes and amazing returns, but also brilliant footwork and a cerebral tug-of-war as each player tried to impose his will on the match.
The fact that both antagonists, though demi-gods in their exposition of badminton skills, were human was brought to the fore when they exhibited signs of nerves, and made the sort of unforced errors they would never make against anyone else. They remained tied until 16-all when Lee produced that little bit extra and opened up a three-point gap at 19-16.
At 20-17, it seemed all over for the defending Olympic champion. But Lin Dan is not considered the greatest player of all time for nothing. He brought his legendary concentration skills to the fore, and produced that extra gear from his fast-dwindling reserves, to restore parity.
There was one rally at 19-20 when he was so badly out of position that it appeared a lost cause, but Super Dan still reached the baseline, got the bird back and also reached the net to pick up a sharp dribble. It was extraordinary badminton, and it seemed that Lee was once again destined to end up second best to the greatest. But this time, he would not be denied, and somehow managed the final two aces to seal a triumph that will be talked about for years to come.
The Malaysian's job, though, is not yet over. Although he has consigned his greatest rival to vying for the bronze medal in a play-off match on Saturday, he has to go one step further to try and ensure against having to rest content with a third consecutive Olympic silver medal.
In the summit clash, the top-ranked Lee will take on two-time reigning Chinese world champion and second seeded Chen Long, who was not unduly stretched while cutting down Denmark’s 22-year-old budding talent and No 4 seed, Viktor Axelsen to size by a 21-14, 21-15 margin in ten minutes under the hour.
Chen's smooth movements on the court and excellent use of his height while bringing the shuttle down at a steeper angle than most other players will trouble Lee, although he does carry a 13-12 winning head-to-head record against the Chinese ace.
On Saturday, the Malaysian will have a golden chance of securing revenge against Chen for his 14-21, 17-21 loss to the defending champion in the 2015 World Championship final at Jakarta.
First Published On : Aug 20, 2016 15:40 IST