All England Open 2018: Ageing Lin Dan stopped in his tracks by aggressive Shi Yuqi; Tai Tzu Ying shows her class
It is sad to observe the end of an era. On the strength of Lin’s performance, it can be safely deduced that the old-timer will continue to be a threat to the world’s best players on any given day, but will find it increasingly difficult to play at the same level through the five days of a World tournament
Old Father Time would not be denied his pound of flesh. Chinese legend Lin Dan, going for his seventh All England men’s singles title, was rudely brought down to earth by the effervescent ebullience of youthful compatriot Shi Yuqi, who dealt him a resounding 21-19, 16-21, 21-9 thumping in a 75-minute encounter that turned out to be the longest of five finals at the Birmingham Arena on Sunday.
The result was a repeat of last year’s All England semi-final, when Shi had knocked out his idol by a 24-22, 21-11 margin, leaving Lin so furious with himself that he refused to face the media for the mandatory post-match interaction. It also showed that an ageing Lin has not quite deciphered the Shi puzzle, as can be seen from his losing 1-3 career head-to-head record against the 22-year-old, currently occupying the sixth spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
The 34-year-old Chinese left-hander — who owns five world championship titles and two Olympic gold medals in a distinguished career that has run the course of a decade and a half — found the going getting increasingly tough as the match progressed and the rallies became longer and more demanding.
The sprightly court movement and anticipation that the veteran had displayed in the totally even first two games of the summit clash of the $1 million World Tour competition disappeared in the decider as the younger, fitter, faster man maintained a sustained attack against any toss or clear that was even marginally short. In fact, Shi quite often employed a potent, stinging sideline smash on both flanks, even from the baseline, more often than not catching Lin flat-footed as his legs refused to cooperate with the dictates of his brain.
Really, it is sad to observe the end of an era. On the strength of Lin’s performance, in what was, incidentally, the 81st title match of his distinguished career, it can be safely deduced that the old-timer will continue to be a threat to the world’s best players on any given day, but will find it increasingly difficult to play at the same level through the five days of a World Tour (formerly Superseries) tournament.
A fantastic showing against arch-rival Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia in the quarter-final, which had resulted in a straight-games victory in what was their 40th career meeting, prevented Lin’s limbs from getting stiff and sore in the semi-final against fellow-countryman Huang Yuxiang. However, the three-gamer he had to play against Huang, after being forced to concentrate fiercely and step up a gear in the deciding stanza, certainly affected his performance in the final.
In this one respect, the best badminton player of all time differs from the greatest tennis player that strode the earth. Even though Lin is often referred to as the Roger Federer of badminton, the Chinese southpaw has not been as dominant in the tournaments he has played over the past year or two as Federer has. The Swiss ace won two Grand Slams last year and had a 17-0 tournament record for 2018 before his defeat to Juan Martin del Potro at Indian Wells.
Lin’s situation is akin to that which India’s Saina Nehwal faces in the future — the inability to last the full course of a five-day competition, playing at the same level as on the first day. It is possible that the mental intensity will be there right through, but it has to be augmented by cooperation from her limbs in the face of the lengthy and exhausting rallies that players like Akane Yamaguchi and world champion Nozomi Okuhara indulge in, in an effort to physically break down their opponents.
While on the subject of 20-year-old Yamaguchi, it can be said that she may be the fittest female player in the world, and arguably the fastest at the moment, but these attributes were not sufficient to allow her to slip it across the 23-year-old defending champion and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei.
The incomparable self-belief and elan of the Taiwanese ace, who plays her badminton with instinctive spontaneity enabled her to notch a 22-20, 21-13 victory over the second-seeded Japanese who had taken down India’s PV Sindhu in three tough games the previous day.
Tai, trying her level best to cut the rallies short, even at the risk of playing an extra-sharp stroke, trailed by a couple of points for the better part of the first game, and it was Yamaguchi who held the advantage at 20-19. But the amazing control that the Taiwanese has over her strokes from virtually any spot on the court, and her steely temperament, enabled the World No 1 to wrest the game from her rival’s grasp.
There were no two opinions on which was the superior player in the second game, as the Chinese Taipei star led all the way, and never relinquished her stranglehold on the game. It was astounding to witness one of the longest rallies in the game, in which Tai managed to defend her bastion in the face of Yamaguchi’s strongest and most desperate attack, and actually left the supremely fit Japanese player winded and exhausted at the end, even as she herself maintained that enigmatic smile!
The paired events witnessed some upheavals, with the unseeded Japanese pair of Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino lowering the colours of former World No 1, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong with a 15-21, 22-20, 21-16 verdict, in the process becoming the first Japanese pair ever to win the mixed doubles title at the All England.
The Danish combination of Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter-Juhl finally ended a lengthy wait for the coveted All England crown by beating Japan’s Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota at 21-19, 21-18 in an hour-long encounter packed with interminable rallies averaging 30-35 strokes each time.
There was, however, no stopping the crack, top-seeded Indonesian pairing of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon from lifting the men’s doubles crown at the expense of the ‘old regulars’, second-seeded Carsten Mogensen and Mathias Boe of Denmark, by a 21-18, 21-17 margin. The World No 1 pair has been hugely dominant on the international circuit in the course of the past two years, and were full value for their second consecutive All England success.
Nevertheless, it is a sobering thought that the Danes had squeaked through their second round duel against the youthful Indian pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty at 23-21 in the third and deciding game. A classic case of what could have been!
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