All England Open 2021: Lee Zii Jia could prove worthy successor to Lee Chong Wei; Japanese armada scores big

Lee Zii Jia won the All England title at the expense of the two top-notchers - Viktor Axelsen and Kento Momota - who have been at the forefront of the sport for the past three years

Shirish Nadkarni March 24, 2021 14:38:06 IST
All England Open 2021: Lee Zii Jia could prove worthy successor to Lee Chong Wei; Japanese armada scores big

Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia competes against Denmark's Victor Axelsen during the men's final match of the All England Open Badminton Championships. AP

Lee Zii Jia became an overnight star. Malaysia, starved of badminton success after Lee Chong Wei's retirement last year, hailed the tall, powerfully built Alor Setar native after he won the All England men’s singles badminton title on Sunday, just eight days before his 23rd birthday.

LZJ, as he has come to be known in the badminton world, lifted the prestigious crown at the Arena Birmingham after a stirring display of smashing power, quicksilver movements, resolute defence, unflappable temperament and character, in a fabulous 30-29, 20-22, 21-9 triumph against defending champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, in an hour and 14 minutes.

After winning the opening game with that rarest of rare scores requiring the sudden-death golden point at 29-all, LZJ had the mortification of seeing his gangling rival wrest the second stanza from his grasp with the victory well in sight. That reverse might have unnerved any player, but the Malaysian is made of sterner stuff, and showed that his fitness levels and nerves are capable of withstanding the test.

It was the Dane, world champion in 2017, who cracked open like an eggshell in the final reaches of the encounter, revealing the kind of fragile nerves that had also caused him to end up second best in the World Tour finals to compatriot Anders Antonsen in January. It allowed LZJ to emulate the 2017 All England title winning feat of his idol, fellow-countryman Chong Wei, who had to quit the sport after nose cancer would not allow him to attain the levels of fitness that had characterised his illustrious career, lasting almost two decades.

It is significant to note that LZJ won the crown at the expense of the two top-notchers who have been at the forefront of the sport for the past three years. While lowering the colours of Axelsen in the title round, the Malaysian had laid low the two-time reigning world champion and 2019 All England title winner, Kento Momota of Japan, in the quarter-finals, in straight games at 21-17, 21-19.

Momota, it must be underscored, was playing his first tournament in 14 months after suffering a career-threatening nose injury in a road accident in Kuala Lumpur. The Japanese left-hander was far from his best, and looked to be easing his way back into top-flight competition. He will no doubt remain one of the main contenders for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in July this year, but LZJ has given him plenty of food for thought.

All England Open 2021 Lee Zii Jia could prove worthy successor to Lee Chong Wei Japanese armada scores big

Lee Zii Jia (extreme left) part of the Malaysian team in India in 2016. Photo: Shirish Nadkarni

“We had seen Zii Jia in India, some five years ago, when he was still a junior, and had come to Bangalore with four other Malaysian youngsters as part of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy’s exchange programme,” says Vimal Kumar, two-time former national champion and now chief coach of the Dravid Padukone Centre for Excellence (DPCE). “We were struck at the time with his talent and work ethic, and were not surprised to see him win the All England. None of the other boys progressed to his level.”

Although LZJ put up an outstanding show in the final, it must be said that India’s top hope, Lakshya Sen, lost a gilt-edged opportunity of challenging the Malaysian in the semi-final, when he surrendered to Mark Caljouw of the Netherlands at 17-21 in the deciding game of a 55-minute long quarter-final.

An All England semi-final would have looked really good on Indian teenager's CV, who has recently recovered from a serious back injury, and is still getting back to full fitness. But Sen would rue the chance that slipped by, when he sees that the Dutchman Caljouw was beaten by his DPCE batch-mate, Kiran George, in Tuesday’s first round of the ongoing Orleans Masters Super 100 event in France, by a 13-21, 21-18, 22-20 scoreline.

As for the Indian flag-bearer, Kidambi Srikanth, he had no answer to the speed and fitness of the Vietnamese Nhat Nguyen, who settled in Ireland shortly after birth, and has been making waves on the European circuit of late. Nguyen threw a major spanner in the 27-year-old Guntur lad’s hopes of making the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, and it is hoped that he has better luck at the Orleans Masters, where he has been given the top seeding.

Among the women, Japan’s 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, revealed the extent of her speed, fitness, accuracy and tenacity while winning the crown at the expense of the exciting young Thai, Pornpawee Chochuwong, seen as the player who could take over the mantle of her country’s top player from the 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon.

Okuhara’s semi-final triumph over Intanon was achieved by showing nerves of steel when winning the final seven points of her utterly absorbing, long-drawn semi-final, from a near-hopeless 14-18 deficit in the decider. The pint-sized Japanese showed great powers of recuperation and recovery from the gruelling semi-final showdown, and simply ran away in the final from her Thai rival, who had settled the pretensions of a stiff and sore PV Sindhu in the penultimate reckoning.

Sindhu’s outstanding performance against the other main Japanese contender for the women’s singles title, Akane Yamaguchi, has been well documented earlier, as has been her inability to raise her game and mental level in the semi-final against the dangerous Chochuwong, who was at her determined best.

Suffice to say that Sindhu will need her body to be at its optimal level when she contests for the Olympic gold against the brace of Japanese and Thai rivals in a crowded field, as well as the trio of top-notchers – Carolina Marin of Spain, Chen Yufei of China and Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei – who chose to give this year’s All England a miss.

In the absence of contingents from China, Chinese Taipei and South Korea, as well as last-minute withdrawal by Indonesia's squad due to positive COVID-19 cases on the flight, the Japanese armada held majestic sway, placing seven representatives out of ten in the final day’s schedule.

Japanese shuttlers made a clean sweep of the placings in the finals of all three doubles events.

Ebullient left-hander Yuta Watanabe bagged both the men’s doubles and mixed doubles titles, in the process successfully defending the men’s doubles title he had won last year with Hiroyuki Endo.

Watanabe might not have it all his way when the field will be fully populated at the Olympics, but his outstanding showing at Birmingham will serve as a huge confidence booster when the Japanese contingent makes a bid to win all the five gold medals that will be at stake on their home territory in July.

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