Even as the applause from the capacity crowd at Kuala Lumpur’s Axiata Arena rose to a crescendo in acknowledgement of Lin Dan’s 78-minute 9-21, 21-17, 21-11 triumph over compatriot Chen Long in the summit clash of the 2019 Malaysian Open badminton championships, there would have been a moment of deep connect between the 35-year-old Chinese legend and the 36 year-old Malaysian who was given the honour of placing the gold medal around the winner’s neck.
After all, it was a title over which Lee Chong Wei had assumed a virtual birthright, winning it a record 12 times in the 15 years between 2004 and 2018. It had been heart-breaking when the Malaysian had had to withdraw at the last minute from the defence of his title in his home tournament, on the advice of his Taiwanese doctor, who had felt he was not quite ready to return to the courts after a year-long battle with nose cancer.
More than a year back, these two greatest shuttlers of their generation had announced their intention of continuing to play until the 2020 Olympics. But while Lee’s indisposition made it much more difficult for him to qualify for a berth in the severely restricted field in Tokyo, Lin got his campaign aimed at playing in his fifth Olympiad back on track with a truly magnificent display of skill, strokeplay, temperament and – what has been his sole bugbear in the past couple of years – stamina.
The man was able to prove as much to himself as to the closely watching badminton world that he still had it in him to last the course of a top tournament – playing five tough back-to-back matches in as many days, to bag the title. Clearly, he has fed his ageing body into the wringer, putting in the hard yards in the gymnasium in an effort to match the lasting powers of quality players more than a decade his junior.
And yet, when the final of this $700,000 prize money World Tour Super 750 tournament began, there were not many amongst even his most ardent supporters who would have bet on the possibility of Super Dan regaining the title he had first won in the Malaysian tiger’s own den in 2017. The feeling of despondency among his fans would have been accentuated by the sight of a heavily strapped left thigh, a memento from three of his four previous matches that had gone the full distance.
The five-time (between 2006 and 2013) world champion and two-time (2008 and 2012) Olympic gold medallist appeared a half-step slow on his feet as the 30-year-old Chen, himself a two-time (2014 and 2015) world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, led from start to finish in the opening game. Chen, playing on the “good” side of the arena, against the drift, employed his prodigious height and reach to rain down smashes and half-smashes from several acute angles, often catching his rival flat-footed.
But from the start of the second game, there was a marked momentum shift. Having finally got his feet moving, and with the advantage of the better side, Lin streaked to a 7-1 lead and, for the first time, appeared to have a foothold in the match. He anticipated all of his rival’s best moves, did not allow the lurking Chen to ‘tap’ the shuttle at the net, and was even content to engage his opponent in lengthy tossing bouts in the attritional style made famous by the likes of Okuhara and Yamaguchi.
Even though Chen fought his way back to 9-all, Lin refused to fall behind, opening out to 16-13, before his antagonist again neutralised at 16-all. That was when the all-time great stepped up a gear, closing down the net behind his smash, and effecting some amazing clears to the deep when Chen tried the same tactic of following up his smash to the net. Lin sealed the second game with five of the last six points.
Spectators rubbed their eyes in disbelief as the left-hander, despite again playing with the drift in the first half of the decider, barreled to a massive 11-4 lead at the change of ends. Chen was not one to give in easily, and tried every trick in the book to narrow down the lead, stepping up the pace and trying to put Lin’s defence under pressure. It was to no avail, for the legend was now in the “zone”, and strode smoothly to his second Malaysian Open title in the last three years.
It is worth noting the deciding-game scores of Lin Dan’s last three matches. He beat Tsuneyama at 21-10 in the decider of their extended quarter-final encounter; and allowed his 23-year-old compatriot, Shi Yuqi, only a dozen points in the third game of their semi-final bout. A 21-11 third-game score against Chen Long sufficed to show the extent of his supremacy over all-comers when matters came to the crunch. No longer can he be said to be lacking in stamina.
There was no stopping Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying, either. The top-seeded defending champion, who has been World No 1 for all but one week (in April last year, when Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi took over the Numero Uno position briefly) since December 2016, completed a hat-trick of Malaysian Open titles by striding gracefully past Yamaguchi by a 21-16, 21-19 scoreline in a 40-minute encounter that showcased her prodigious talent.
— BWF (@bwfmedia) April 7, 2019
It was the classic “artist versus artisan” duel, with the Taiwanese dictating the pace and trend of the rallies, and often finishing with an outrageous drop shot that had her rival rooted in the middle of the court. Tai simply could not be caught out of position by any stroke that Yamaguchi produced; and it was always the pint-sized Japanese, short legs churning industriously, who was left chasing the shuttle, caressed across the net by the light-footed danseuse on the other side of the court.
This was Tai’s fourth Malaysian Open title, after the ones bagged in 2013, ’17 and ’18. But it was also her first title of the ongoing year, after she spent a barren first quarter, reaching three finals, but being unable to win any of them. Her delightful performance at the Axiata Arena showed that she had finally recovered completely from the back injury that had ruined the second half of her 2018 season, and had left her less than fully fit in the January to March 2019 period.
Having put her All England conqueror, China’s Chen Yufei, firmly in place in the semi-final, Tai will enter the Olympic qualification year on a strong note, ready to set right the two aberrations in her impressive resume – the absence of a world and Olympic title. Sensationally, she has declared that she will retire at the end of next year’s Olympics when she is 26 years of age, whether she wins these two titles or not.
Incidentally, Tai’s women’s singles crown was the only one that the Chinese armada missed from the five events contested in Kuala Lumpur. There were actually three all-China finals, which meant the Chinese had seven representatives out of ten in the finals; and they ended up winning four titles.
The gangling World No 2 combination of Li Jinhui and Liu Yuchen bagged the men’s doubles with an easy 21-12, 21-17 victory over defending champions Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda of Japan; Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan subdued their compatriots, Du Yue and Li Yinhui at 21-14, 21-15; and the world’s top two mixed doubles pairs, Zheng Siwei-Huang Yaqiong and Wang Yilyu-Huang Dongping contested the final of their event, with the former triumphing at 21-17, 21-13.
The results showed that the Chinese are gearing up systematically for a proper, planned assault on all the yellow metal at stake in next year’s Olympic Games. And it would be in the fitness of things if their amazing old war-horse, being touted as the greatest player of all time, could come away from Tokyo with his third Olympic gold.
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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 17:36:29 IST