Can it be said that the Lin Dan era is over? If one considers the manner of the Chinese two-time Olympic gold medallist’s loss to compatriot Shi Yuqi in the semi-finals of the All England Super Series Premier Badminton Championships, there would be reason to believe that the 33-year-old has indeed crashed into the final hurdle before the final straight to the finishing line.
Yuqi, who turned 21 years of age on February 28 this year, on the eve of these championships, stayed grimly with ‘Super Dan’, as Dan is known, while the left-handed legend tried every trick from his vast repertoire to bag the bitterly-contested first game; and then showed a clean pair of heels to the badminton great in the second, to record a 24-22, 21-11 victory.
The 12-year age gap between the two players was amply evident in the closing reaches of the match as Dan appeared increasingly leaden-footed in the face of the youngster’s speedy and sustained all-court attack. And, while the five-time world champion has made almost as many comebacks in the past as our own Mohinder Amarnath, the writing did appear on the wall that we are likely to see very little of this amazing player in the future.
Yuqi’s triumph – which was not entirely unexpected, considering the manner of his three earlier victories in the tournament – deprived the badminton world of yet another Lin Dan-Lee Chong Wei dream final, which would have been the 38th meeting of their illustrious careers that have run a parallel course, with the Chinese southpaw having won twice as many matches as he has lost, with a 25-12 record.
The encounter against the maestro might well have been Yuqi’s breakthrough match that would have catapulted him into the top echelons of the game for the next decade, at least – although he already has one Super Series title under his belt, the French Open in October last year, at the expense of Korea’s Li Hyun Il.
Going into this All England ranked 11th in the world, Yuqi has already improved his Badminton World Federation (BWF) ranking to 10th, the highest he has reached in the wake of an outstanding 2016, when he also won two Grand Prix Gold tournaments – the Bitburger Open, beating India’s Sourabh Verma in the final, and the Indonesia Masters at the expense of his fellow-countryman, Huang Yuxiang.
From a lowly ranking of 289 in October 2015, the Chinese player improved to 115 at the start of 2016, and then has worked his way steadily up through the ranks and now he stands on the verge of cracking single digits.
However, he had shown his pedigree a couple of years earlier by winning the Under-19 singles title at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, in 2014, beating fellow-Chinese Lin Guipu, thus reversing the result of his three-game loss to Guipu in the BWF World Junior Championships held in Alor Setar, Malaysia, earlier that year.
Coming into this All England on the back of his brilliant performances in the second half of 2016, Yuqi had facile victories in his first three outings – a 21-12, 21-9 win over 35-year-old compatriot Hu Yun, followed by a 21-16, 21-14 triumph over the redoubtable Hong Kong star, Ng Ka Long Angus, and a thumping 21-13, 21-4 win over Japan’s Kazumasa Sakai in the quarter-finals.
Yuqi will no doubt prove to be a hot packet to handle for the top seeded Lee Chong Wei, who has defied the debilitating effects of a knee injury sustained while training in Kuala Lumpur a month back, and barged into the final with straight-games victories over Frenchman Brice Leverdez, Taiwan’s Tzu Wei Wang and China’s Tian Houwei; and a slightly tougher three-game win over another Taiwanese, Chou Tien Chen, at 10-21, 21-14, 21-9 in Saturday’s semi-final.
It must be said that Lee has looked none the worse for the injury which he had originally expected would keep him out of this year’s All England. His knee got twisted while he was training on a worn-out court mat, which he had earlier termed as “dangerous”, and requested the Badminton Association of Malaysia’s (BAM) head coach Morten Frost to get changed. The incident had resulted in an unsavoury row, with Lee cursing Frost out, and threatening to walk out of the BAM’s training centre.
However, the 34-year-old Lee’s amazing resilience and ability to heal swiftly — one remembers his remarkably swift recovery from a severe ankle injury he had sustained in 2014 — has assisted him in being in acceptable physical condition at this All England. No one on the badminton circuit works harder than the Malaysian, and he showed during the course of his lengthy semi-final encounter with Chou that his staying powers had not been affected by the knee injury.
Thus, while a piquant men’s singles final, pitting the tried and tested against the exuberance and bubble of youth is in the offing, the women’s singles summit clash presents an even more mouth-watering prospect, featuring as it will the two best naturally talented stroke-makers in the world, Tai Tzu-Ying of Chinese Taipei and Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand.
Top-seeded Tzu-Ying has looked in outstanding form in this tournament, even though she dropped her first game of the Championships to South Korean Sung Ji Hyun in the semi-final. Recovering from a slow start, which she had also demonstrated against Japan’s Minatsu Mitani in the second round and India’s P V Sindhu in the quarter-final, Tai unleashed her rich repertoire of strokes from the start of the second game, and ran away with the match at 11-21, 21-14, 21-14.
Ratchanok, the 2013 world champion and No 5 seed, had to work almost as hard in the opening game against the pint-sized Japanese dynamo, Akane Yamaguchi, but improved her length and stroke selection as the match progressed, and kept Yamaguchi at bay, for a 22-20, 21-16 triumph. Ratchanok’s main shortcoming is that she tends to over-use the wristy crosscourt flick at the net, giving her rival a chance to get used to the otherwise eye-filling shot.
The two final opponents are desperately close in the head-to-head career meetings, with the Thai girl holding a slim 7-6 advantage over the Taiwanese. But it was Tai who won their last meeting – with a comprehensive 21-12, 21-14 triumph in the Dubai Super Series finals in December 2016.
Tai has carried that rich vein of form into this All England, and would appear to have a 60-40 chance of bagging the crown at a tournament where she has progressed to the final for the first time after having her campaign truncated at the semi-final stage on three earlier occasions.
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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2017 10:28:07 IST