If my name had been Ng Ka Long Angus, I would spend Friday night heaping every possible curse I could dream up, upon the name of Lee Chong Wei.
It was a cleverly executed charade that the Malaysian veteran put up on Friday at the Sheikh Hamdan Indoor Stadium, while losing his final group match to South Korea’s Son Wan Ho — a result which ensured that both Lee and Son qualified for the men’s singles semi-finals of the year-ending Dubai World Superseries Finals, leaving Hong Kong’s Angus Ng gnashing his teeth in despair.
The Korean won at 13-21, 22-20, 21-15 in a 75-minute encounter that often bordered on the farcical. Following the last-minute withdrawal of two-time former world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Chen Long, Group ‘A’ had been reduced to a three-horse race, with the top two slated to go through to the play-off semi-finals.
It had been known before the Lee-Son match that Angus, who beat Son in three games, but had lost earlier to Lee in two straight games, had a record of one win and one loss, with a 2-3 aggregate of games won against games lost. If Lee were to beat Son, he would have ended up the group leader with two wins without a defeat, while the Korean would be on the plane home with two straight defeats and no victories.
The pre-match calculations showed that Lee needed to win a solitary game against Son to finish atop the group, even if he lost the remaining two games for a 3-2 aggregate. In other words, Lee had to allow the Korean to win their match in three games, to pull him up to a 3-3 aggregate, and pip Angus on the countback. And that is how the whole affair was stage-managed.
Despite leading by a massive 13-3 margin in both of the first two games, and pocketing the opener comfortably after allowing Son to narrow the margin somewhat, Lee appeared to stumble on the court midway through the second game, and ended up sprawled on his back. Thereafter, he literally played at half-pace, even engaging his rival in lengthy baseline-to-baseline tossing rallies in the time-honoured style of a ‘marker’, and making little effort to regain his aggressive mien of the opening game.
Let me assert here that the Malaysian carefully did nothing that could have induced the game’s watchdogs to suggest that he had deliberately tanked the match. The current world No 2 stayed strictly within the framework of the rules, and did play the occasional point with his normal aggression and verve — ostensibly to show that he was still there. But for the most part of the second half of the match, he was content to let the Korean top seed dictate the trend of the tortoise-paced rallies.
What was Lee’s motive in shepherding Son into the semi-finals, at the expense of the hapless Angus? Was it that he feared Hong Kong’s world No 9 more than the Korean, presently ranked fifth on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder?
The head-to-head records will show that the Malaysian, a four-time winner of the year-ending Superseries finals, had equally imposing records against both his antagonists in Group ‘A’. Before embarking on the match that is under our scanner, he boasted an 11-2 winning record in 13 meetings against Son, including victories in seven of their most recent eight matches.
Against Angus, Lee’s record stands at 6-1, the sole aberration being a narrow three-game loss to the Hong Kong player in the China Open last month. Insofar as this particular competition is concerned, Lee had ambled to a facile 21-14, 21-13 win over Angus on Wednesday, the opening day of the five-day event.
While it is difficult to read the mind of the inscrutable Malaysian, who still holds the world record for most weeks at the top of the BWF rankings, it is possible that Lee had found the essentially defensive Son an even easier opponent to handle than the bustling Angus, judging by the runaway leads he built up in each of the first two games against the Korean.
Ergo, he was willing to take a 50 percent chance of facing the same opponent in the play-off semi-finals on Saturday.
Ever since the unsavoury episode of two women’s doubles combinations being disqualified from the 2012 London Olympics for ‘throwing’ their respective final group matches, in order to ensure meeting a weaker pair in the play-offs, lots are drawn to determine the semi-final opponents of the two group leaders.
As luck would have it, Saturday’s men’s singles semi-finals will witness a repeat of the group matches in which Lee Chong Wei will cross swords with Son Wan Ho, while Viktor Axelsen takes on his young, unbeaten Chinese conqueror in Group ‘B’, Shi Yuqi. The latter two stalwarts eked out three-game triumphs over Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen and India’s Kidambi Srikanth on Friday.
Chou had the distinction of dragging the Danish world champion over the full distance, winning the second game of their 67-minute contest which ended with the score reading 21-16, 14-21, 21-15 in Axelsen’s favour.
The most heart-warming feature of this absorbing contest was the sporting manner in which the towering Dane intentionally served short to Chou midway through the second game, after the chair umpire had failed to notice an infringement caused by Axelsen’s racquet touching the net in the course of a lightning tap, and obstinately refused to award the point to the Hong Kong player.
As for Srikanth, he ended a most depressing campaign in the desert emirate with his third consecutive loss in Group ‘B’, which he had entered seeded second. The 17-21, 21-19, 14-21 defeat at the hands of Shi was his first loss to the upcoming 21-year-old Chinese player in four career meetings.
Agreed, it was an inconsequential match, the result of which had no bearing on any aspect except determining which of the two, Shi or Axelsen, would end up top of the group. Had Srikanth won in two straight games, he would have deprived the Chinese player of the top spot in the group, which would have gone to Axelsen on a countback of games won against games lost.
The Indian, however, played as if his mind were submerged in a fog. In the closely contested opening game, when the lead changed hands several times, Srikanth let Shi draw away from 16-all to win five of the final six points. The 24-year-old Andhra native sparked briefly to life when down 18-19 in the equally tight second game, and claimed it with a three-point burst.
However, all fight seemed to leave Srikanth’s body from 5-all in the decider. His listless display permitted Shi to draw away to 11-6 at lemon-time, and widen the gap further to 16-9 without any real exceptional play. A brief spark from the Indian at 12-18 only served to slightly narrow the final margin of defeat.
“Honestly, I tried my best to get my teeth into the match, but it was hard to raise a gallop in what was a dead rubber,” said a despondent Srikanth, who had also lost all his three matches in the 2015 edition of the year-ending grand finals. “Dubai has not been a happy hunting ground for me. I have to just accept the fact, and move on.”
The sole motivation for Srikanth to stay on in Dubai for another two days would be to cheer compatriot PV Sindhu as she makes a bid for the women’s singles crown. For Angus, however, staying even an additional day in the desert emirate would be tantamount to inviting more heartburn — as he would, in all likelihood, have to watch Lee perform a clinical hatchet job on the 29-year-old Korean he surrendered to in such controversial circumstances only a day earlier!
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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2017 12:48:13 IST