Saturday at the Malaysian Open was as much a day of retribution as of resurrection. Two outstanding players, among the pantheon of shuttlers destined to seal their spots in history as all-time greats, put in virtuoso performances to dismiss the aspirations of opponents they had recently surrendered to and booked their berths in the singles finals of the $700,000 prize money World Tour Super 700 badminton championship.
At the very start of the session featuring ten semi-finals at Kuala Lumpur’s Axiata Arena, the World No 1 and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, was at very near the top of her awesome game as she cut down China’s Chen Yufei to size by a 21-14, 21-19 scoreline in four minutes over the half-hour mark. Except when Chen was able to save a match-point at 20-18 in the second game, she never looked like she would be able to drag the 24 year old Taiwanese to a third game.
The artistic Tai was thus able to extract vengeance from the 21-year-old Chinese youngster for her unexpected straight-games defeat in the finals of the All England championships last month. The woman who has already spent more than 125 weeks at the top of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings was thus able to restore her dominance over Chen, taking the record of their career head-to-head meetings to 12-1 in her own favour, the recent All England final defeat being the solitary blot on the escutcheon.
In Sunday’s final, Tai will cross swords with the woman who had briefly dethroned her from the World No 1 spot last year – Japan’s fourth-seeded Akane Yamaguchi, who sidelined her compatriot and No 2 seed, Nozomi Okuhara, by a 21-15, 22-20 scoreline in 42 minutes of persistent attrition.
Yamaguchi has had limited success against her fellow-Japanese in the past, as her 7-11 head-to-head record shows. But on Saturday, the 21-year-old overcame extreme tiredness at 18-20 in the second game, to snatch the final four points, and qualify to take on Tai, whom she has troubled often enough in the past. The record stands at 8-7 in the Taiwanese player’s favour, and includes a three-game semi-final triumph for Tai at the recent All England championships.
Later in the day, China’s living legend Lin Dan sent hard-core badminton-lovers into a frenzy of delight as he settled scores with fellow-countryman and No 2 seed, Shi Yuqi, conclusively demonstrating that, in the year before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he was getting closer and closer to the dizzy levels that had fetched him five world championship titles and two Olympic gold medals.
The 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion eliminated the 2018 All England champion by a 21-19, 16-21, 21-12 scoreline, taking an hour and five minutes to settle the pretensions of the man being widely touted as his country’s logical successor to Lin Dan and Chen Long, the men who have seven world championships and three Olympic gold medals between them.
But, hold your breath! Unlike the women’s singles final, which features two players who have never won either a world championship or an Olympic gold medal, the men’s final will feature the very two Chinese players who have a clutch of world and Olympic crowns between them, but whom the bulk of badminton aficionados had written off from serious contention for the Olympic gold next year.
Dad’s Army, comprising 35-year-old Lin Dan and 30-year-old Chen Long, will joust on the morrow for the Malaysia Open crown, after the latter outpointed Indonesia’s 2018 Asian Games champion, Jonatan Christie, by a 12-21, 21-10, 21-15 verdict, with the match – played on an adjoining court to the Lin-Shi duel – lasting just one minute less than the other semi-final.
It has been said of Lin Dan that there is no player in the world who can stand against him when his game is on song. Not his long-time arch-rival, Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, who has never won a world or Olympic title; not the 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark; not the reigning world champion, Kento Momota of Japan.
As a left-hander, Lin adds tremendous deception to the variety and control in his rich repertoire of strokes, and his anticipation is truly unbelievable. Unlike most contemporary players, who prefer caution to aggression, keep the shuttle in the central corridor of the court, and are loath to go for the lines, Lin almost monotonously hits the lines with metronomic precision. Not for nothing has he been called the Roger Federer of badminton.
Lin had himself declared, without an iota of false modesty, that there was no player he feared in the world when he was fully fit and on top of his game. The problem was that, having been there and done that, he was finding it hard to drum up the motivation to keep going. By his own admission, it had been a shortage of staying power that had caused his defeats over the past couple of years to players he would probably have beaten in his prime with one hand tied behind his back!
It does seem that, with the starting date for the Olympic qualification year looming on the horizon, the distinctly quixotic Lin has decided that he will go all out for a final tilt at the windmills. So much has he stepped up his physical regimen that he was able to win three of his four encounters in this competition in three games.
Lin did just enough to pip third-seeded Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei at the tape by a 13-21, 21-19, 21-19 scoreline in his opening round. He was at his ruthless best in the second game against Thailand’s Suppanyu Avihingsanon for a 25-23, 21-8 verdict; and then managed to outlast Japanese Thomas Cupper Kanta Tsuneyama at 16-21, 21-17, 21-10, getting progressively stronger as the match progressed.
His 21-19, 16-21, 21-12 win against Shi Yuqi was only his second triumph in seven meetings, and came after four successive losses, including three last year alone. The manner in which he controlled the rallies in the third game, taking a useful 11-7 lead from the “good” side (i.e. the side where he was playing against the drift), and keeping the shuttle down after the change of ends, revealed his tactical acumen.
The true extent of Lin Dan’s resurrection will be seen in tomorrow’s final, which will be his 16th career meeting against his fellow-countryman, fellow-world champion and fellow-Olympic gold medallist. The older man holds a slim 8-7 lead, but will be aware that most of his wins had come half a decade ago, when he was still at the peak of his amazing powers, and Chen was still on the way up. The two last encountered each other in April and June 2017, and both bouts ended in the younger player’s favour.
What Lin Dan needs to do is to reassure himself that he still has it in him to play five tough rounds on as many days, and still emerge smelling good. If he can eliminate his third-seeded player in this competition, he will be a truly worthy winner of the crown that his friend and arch-rival, Lee Chong Wei, has won on a mind-boggling twelve occasions in the past.
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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 08:51:29 IST