Lee Chong Wei! Lee Chong Wei! Lee Chong Wei! The insistent chant from the small but extremely vocal Malaysian contingent in the sell-out crowd at Birmingham's Barclaycard Arena grew steadily in decibel level and was successful in drowning out the desperate entreaties of a much larger crowd of Chinese supporters, as the men’s singles final of the 2017 All England Super Series Premier Badminton Championships drew to a close.
It was heartwarming to see the classy old Malaysian warhorse put mind over matter, shrug off his left knee injury, and decimate the challenge of young Chinese upstart, Shi Yuqi, by a runaway 21-12, 21-10 scoreline. If the match duration revealed 44 minutes on the clock, it was because some seven minutes were taken up by an injury time-out, with the official physician tending to Yuqi, who turned his ankle at 18-10 in the second game when the result was a foregone conclusion.
The piece-de-resistance of the evening was its final match — the women’s singles title clash between world No 1 and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, and Thailand’s No 5 seed, Ratchanok Intanon, both strokemakers par excellence and arguably the two most talented female players in the world today.
In a battle between the 22-year-olds, it was the pert Taiwanese girl who reined in her Thai adversary in the closing reaches of the match, as Ratchanok stood at 20-18, within a point of bagging the second game and taking the match to a decider. Displaying far better lasting powers than the Bangkok native, Tai grimly pulled the game to deuce, and then forced Ratchanok to push her low serve long at the baseline, to take the title with a 21-16, 22-20 verdict.
This was a match of the highest quality, with both girls showing outstanding footwork and court coverage, and producing strokes of rare vintage on both flanks. Rallies were played at great pace and with pinpoint precision, using all four corners of the court. Neither player could take the finish of a rally for granted, since the opponent would get the shuttle back from a near-impossible position, and with dividends attached.
Little separated the two at any stage of the match; they were on each other’s heels and at each other’s throats throughout the 50-minute encounter. If Tai had a slight advantage, it was in her ability to anticipate Ratchanok’s best strokes, and not be tricked, as Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi had been in the semi-final. Yes, superior anticipation and a distinct edge in physical fitness were what netted Tai the gold.
Lee Chong Wei had no such problems, despite having to bear the cross of a 13-year age disadvantage to his 21-year-old antagonist. The Malaysian ace covered the court with greater swiftness than the young Chinese player, and always remained in control of the rallies.
Throughout the contest, Datuk Lee, a prestigious title conferred on him by the Malaysian government, and equivalent to the British ‘Lord’, cleverly used the one-two combinations employed in boxing, hitting a steep or well angled half-smash to induce a weak return, and then unleashing the 330-kmph sledgehammer, either from midcourt or after rushing to the net behind the opening-creating shot.
Yuqi was totally nonplussed by his rival’s ability to repeatedly hit the lines with his one-two combinations that had the Chinese player at full stretch, desperately trying to just get the shuttle back, let alone placing it beyond Lee’s reach. He was equally bewildered by the acrobatic defence that Lee put up, diving full-length sideways to parry a hot smash, and bouncing back to his feet in a trice, like an India-rubber ball.
If there was any indication of the knee injury he had sustained a month earlier during training, it was only visual – in the form of a thick swathe of protective bandage around the joint. It did not affect Lee’s movements in the least, even when he had to put his full body weight on the left leg to hit the crosscourt overhead strokes.
There was little initial indication of the manner in which Lee was to dominate the match. The two opponents started the contest cautiously, sizing up each other in the manner of boxers circling the ring with defensive postures. The initial skirmishes were fairly even, with mainly a toss-drop pattern of play.
It was from 8-7 that Lee made his move, using the dribble-and-smash pattern to streak into the lemon break with a 11-7 advantage. Yuqi, no doubt advised during the interval by coach Li Yongbo, returned to the court in a much more aggressive frame of mind, and battle had truly begun.
The margin was reduced to 9-12 and then 10-13, but at this point, Lee stepped on the accelerator. Yuqi had no answer to the stream of accurate smashes to the sidelines and Lee’s one-two combinations, as the Malaysian powered to 18-10, and wrapped up the opening game at 21-12 in 18 minutes of somewhat disappointing action, at least from the Chinese shuttler’s point of view.
The debacle continued in the second game as Lee comprehensively controlled the net exchanges and dominated the rallies to build up a 10-4 lead before going into the breather at 11-6. As the Malaysian maintained a minimum five-point lead in the second half of the game, the writing was on the wall. The turned ankle at 18-10 changed nothing, really. The wily old fox had put the young upstart firmly in his place.
It was the fourth time in his illustrious career that Lee was holding up the All England trophy, making him the ninth player in the history of the 118-year old competition, once considered the unofficial world championship, to win the singles title on at least four occasions.
From the manner in which Lee handled Yuqi, it could be safely inferred that the Chinese youngster, while a terrific prospect for the future, is not yet at the level of the two greats who have dominated international badminton for a little over a decade, Lin Dan and Lee himself.
And that raises a couple of extremely interesting questions on the way the Dan-Yuqi semi-final panned out. Super Dan had shown by his quarter-final demolition of the talented and ambitious Dane, Viktor Axelsen (considered by badminton aficionados to be a future world champion), that he was still right up there in the dizzy stratosphere reserved only for the greatest of champions.
Was it that the five-time world champion felt the weight of his 33 years, and the dozen summers he conceded to his youthful compatriot? Would he have been a little stiff or jaded after his exploits in the earlier rounds of the competition? Did he not concentrate as hard on his fitness and work ethic as his greatest rival, Lee, still does? Dan definitely looked short on breath in the second game against Yuqi, and also lacked that special spark that has allowed him in the past to fight back from even well-nigh impossible positions?
Or – and here, the conspiracy theorists would have a field day – was he instructed by his country’s badminton bosses to ‘throw’ his match to Yuqi after putting up a reasonable fight, so that the lad considered to be the future of Chinese male badminton could get the feel of the final of a Super Series Premier event?
It has happened before. Indonesia built Rudy Hartono up as the world’s best in the late 1960s and 1970s, and without doubt instructed every Indonesian who came in his path – be it Darmadi, Muljadi, Christian Hadinata (yes, the doubles expert was also a fine singles player, and has an All England final on his resume) or, in the eventide of his career, Liem Swie King – to concede their matches without putting up a fight.
The Chinese badminton bosses have tried playing Russian Roulette with Dan’s career earlier, drawing a storm of open and vociferous protest from the man considered to be Roger Federer’s badminton equivalent. Dan had opened up to the world’s press on how he refused to kowtow to such ‘match fixing’ instructions from his country’s federation, and how he was being treated like a pariah at home for drawing a line on toeing the line!
At 33, the two-time Olympic champion would definitely be aware of the rustle of autumn leaves beneath his designer sneakers. Perhaps he was not as keen to bag the All England title that he has won on six previous occasions, and preferred to bide his time, to work towards adding to his bulging satchel a sixth title in the World Championships coming up later this year in Glasgow.
Clearly, Dan would have in his sights fellow-countryman and two-time world champion Chen Long and his own long-time rival, Lee, who has pocketed four All England crowns, but has never won an Olympic title or a world championship.
So, does the old dog have one more wag left in his tail? For badminton aficionados, the title prospects of Super Dan will be a topic of delicious discussion in the months leading up to the stellar event in the annual badminton calendar.
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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2017 14:01:57 IST