Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man; not even if he is a living legend. The five-year age difference between China’s badminton phenomenon, 33-year-old Lin Dan, and his supremely fit younger compatriot, Chen Long, proved to be the final arbiter in their men’s singles summit clash of the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan.
For the first three-quarters of an hour of their bitterly fought encounter, the two gladiators, with seven world championship titles and three Olympic gold medals between them, jousted on even terms, exchanging strokes of the highest pedigree; and it was hard for the best of badminton experts to predict who would eventually lift the trophy.
But one intense rally at 10-8 in the second stanza, with Long leading, knocked the stuffing out of his left-handed opponent, and the two-time reigning world and Olympic champion coasted through the residual part of the match, to emerge a 21-23, 21-11, 21-10 victor. The almost superhuman effort that Super Dan put into bagging the first game sapped his reserves for the remainder of the contest, and even his ploy of ‘throwing’ the second game to conserve his energies for the decider failed to work.
From the fact that Dan managed to win just three of the last 14 points of the second game, and a mere 10 of the 31 points that the decider lasted (in other words, a total 13 of the final 45 points of the match), it is easy to deduce that the maestro felt the weight of years and became increasingly leaden-footed, even as his long-legged rival continued his effortless dance all over the court and merely concentrated on keeping the shuttle in play.
Another big disadvantage that the great Chinese southpaw suffered, in addition to conceding five precious years in age to his fellow-countryman, was that ‘Little Dan’ (as Long is widely known) reads his game well, as they often practice together in national camps that are held before major international events.
Ergo, Dan’s biggest plus point — the surprise element, in his ability to make multiple strokes with the same action — is effectively neutralised, with Long hardly ever being deceived by the late stroke, particularly the famed overhead sideline smash. Even though Dan carried an 8-5 head-to-head advantage against Long, going into the final, three of the most recent four matches between them had ended in Long’s favour.
For the Indian badminton-lover, there is a hark back in Long’s familiarisation with Dan’s game to the step that Prakash Padukone took after he had won the All-England title in 1980 — he decided to move temporarily to Copenhagen, to train and practice with the best of Danish players.
Prakash’s move to Denmark allowed that country’s top player, Morten Frost — whom the Indian had beaten 15-6, 15-10 in the semi-final of the 1980 All-England — to study the champion’s deceptive game, and figure out the best way to beat him. Morten, who incidentally enjoyed a three-year age advantage over the 1955-born Prakash, never lost to his Indian on-court foe, off-court friend, thereafter.
The Badminton Asia men’s singles final result is perhaps good for the sport, as it has been dominated for nearly a decade and a half by just two players, whose careers have run a parallel path. Dan and Lee Chong Wei, one year his senior, have between them won all the worthwhile titles since 2003, when their paths first crossed.
Thirty-nine career meetings later, Dan sits on a 27-12 lead, and has prevented his Malaysian adversary from winning a single world or Olympic title, relegating him to the silver medal on three occasions in the World Championships and an equal number of times in the Olympic Games. Chong Wei did slip it across Dan in the semi-finals of the Rio Olympics, but then came a cropper against Long in the final.
If the 80-minute long men’s tussle was the lengthiest of the five finals on the day, the women’s doubles title clash between Japan’s world No 1 pair of Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, and the Korean combination of Kim Hye Rin and Yoo Hae Won was not too far behind. The top seeds won at 21-19, 16-21, 21-10, in a tie lasting exactly an hour and a quarter, and which was packed with the by-now-familiar interminable rallies associated with this event.
All the action was packed into the first two games, which were shared between the two teams, with Takahashi and Matsutomo managing to keep their noses just ahead all the way through, and the Koreans rising to their full stature in the second. Predictably, Kim and Yoo could not maintain the tempo in the decider, as the experienced Japanese duo simply returned everything with dividends attached, and virtually ran away with the match after the change of ends.
There were few who would have ventured to place a bet on the shoulders of the diminutive Japanese dynamo, Akane Yamaguchi, in her quest for the women’s singles crown as she sought to topple the formidable top seed from Chinese Taipei, Tai Tzu Ying, who had won every one of the past five tournaments in which she had participated, and was without a loss in her 29 previous matches.
However, the 19-year-old Japanese girl spilled her guts out on the court, returning everything the Taiwanese ace threw at her, and hoping that her staying powers would tilt the balance in her favour. Yamaguchi very nearly succeeded, but Tai has not been world No 1 for the past six months, for nothing. The 22-year-old Taipei girl weathered the storm, and eventually ran out a 18-21, 21-11, 21-18 victor.
China bagged both the remaining doubles titles, to end up with three of the five titles at stake. Third seeded Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong were in fine fettle as they dismantled the challenge of the pocket-sized Thailand duo of Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai by a 21-18, 21-11 scoreline. The Thais had shown their tremendous potential earlier, by sidelining the top seeds from China, Zheng Siwei and Chen Qingchen, in straight games in the quarter-finals.
In the all-Chinese men’s doubles final that brought the curtain down on the evening’s entertainment, the No 6 seeds, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen were simply too strong for unseeded compatriots Huang Kaixiang and Wang Yilyu, and turned in a 21-14, 21-12 verdict. This was an event that had seen upsets galore, with seven of the eight seeded pairs biting the dust, and the world’s present No 1 pair, Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon absent through injury.
It was hardly surprising to find China dominating the Badminton Asia tournament which was held on their home soil, in the presence of their adoring, badminton-mad crowds.
Nevertheless, the results sheet did not show the kind of clean-sweep of titles that the Chinese have generally been producing. There were just five Chinese representatives in the finals, with Japan providing two, and Korea, Chinese Taipei and Thailand one each. A reasonable sprinkling from the main badminton countries, but with two notable absentees — Malaysia and Indonesia.
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Updated Date: May 01, 2017 17:29:00 IST