The key word is consistency. To be a champion, a player has to produce the goods day after day, through the duration of the tournament. It is simply not enough to produce two excellent back-to-back performances, and then to turn in an insipid show and bow out tamely before the medal rounds.
India’s last hope in the Malaysia Open, Ajay Jayaram, came out totally flat on Friday against No 5 seed, Son Wan Ho of South Korea, and was bundled out in a disappointing men’s singles quarter-final by a 21-18, 21-14 scoreline in just 37 minutes.
The 29-year-old Indian signally failed to replicate the form that had seen him rout China’s Qiao Bin in his opening outing in the $600,000 prize money Super Series Premier tournament, and the steely determination that had helped him edge fourth-seeded Danish giant, Viktor Axelsen, in the pre-quarterfinal on Thursday.
Perhaps it was that Son’s game did not suit him, for he had lost to the 28-year-old South Korean on three earlier occasions. The wristy deception that he had employed against both Qiao Bin and Axelsen was missing from his game on Friday, partly because he appeared to reach the net a half-step slower than he had against the Danish star, and partly because the Korean was not tricked by the late flick clear.
Possibly, Jayaram was a little stiff after having had to go all out the previous day against Axelsen after losing the opening game without a whimper. The combination of all these factors, added to a speedy, positive, aggressive showing by Son, meant that the Indian missed a gilt-edged opportunity of clashing against Chinese legend, Lin Dan, in the penultimate round on Saturday.
The two-times Olympic gold medallist and five times world champion played well within himself for the first two games of his quarter-final encounter with Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie, but then stirred himself in the decider to run out a convincing 21-15, 14-21, 21-9 winner.
It was as if the Chinese No 7 seed was saving himself both physically and emotionally for the projected title clash with his Malaysian arch-rival, Lee Chong Wei, in the latter’s own den, although he first has to get past Son Wan Ho, seeded two places above him. Super Dan carries an impressive 11-2 head-to-head lead against the South Korean, but it must be noted that one of the two Son wins came in the course of their most recent clash — in the 2016 Yonex-Sunrise India Open.
Meanwhile, Chong Wei, who won the All England Championships last month for the fourth time in his illustrious career, was not unduly extended while cutting down 21-year-old qualifier Jeon Hyeok Jin to size, though he had to spend three-quarters of an hour on court and play a string of lengthy rallies to secure a 21-11, 21-14 verdict.
Barrelling into a 11-4 lead with some consistently attacking play from the word “go”, the 34-year-old local hero (who carries the title ‘Datuk’, equivalent to an English knighthood) wrapped up the opening game with minimal fuss. The top-seeded Malaysian, who is yet to drop a game in this tournament, continued to dominate the proceedings in the second game, being relaxed enough to try the occasional trick shot, much to the delight of his fans thronging the Stadium Perpaduan.
Chong Wei’s path to the final was cleared further when his eagerly anticipated semi-final clash with the two-time reigning world champion and No 3 seed, Chen Long of China, failed to materialise. Long, complaining of a sore right wrist, conceded a walk-over in the quarter-final to Hong Kong’s hustler, Wong Wing Ki Vincent, against whom Chong Wei carries an overwhelming 6-0 career head-to-head advantage.
The unluckiest competitor on the day was undoubtedly the unseeded Chinese teenager, Chen Yufei, who played her heart out for 69 minutes against the No 1 seed, Tai Tzu Ying of China, but ended up on the wrong side of a 21-17, 20-22, 24-22 scoreline, in what proved to be the most engrossing match of the day.
It was literally edge-of-the-seat stuff as the World No 13 was able to read almost all of Tai’s deceptive strokes, and was swift enough on her feet to retrieve the ones she failed to read. The stream of strokes coming back from Yufei unsettled Tai to such an extent that she repeatedly netted her overhead crosscourt drops.
The top seed had a golden opportunity to close out the match in two straight games as she staged a superb recovery from 15-19 and 18-20 down to restore parity, but fluffed her lines in the extra-points duel in the second stanza, and was forced to play a gruelling decider, which she should, by rights, have lost after letting go a massive lead.
The Taiwanese appeared to be in full control of the match as she raced to a 17-10 advantage, but fell prey to nerves and was also startled by the fighting qualities and never-say-die retrieving powers displayed by the young Chinese. Yufei caught up at 17-all, and actually went ahead to 19-18, with the full-throated support of the crowd.
But Tai is not the world’s best player for nothing. The 2017 All-England champion was always ahead by a point thereafter, at 20-19, 21-20, 22-21, though Yufei made up the deficit on each occasion with some lion-hearted, and even risky, play. It was only superior experience that enabled the No 1 seed to close out the match that assured her of a semi-final meeting on Saturday against South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun.
The third-ranked Korean was in devastating form as she knocked the stuffing out of China’s leading female player, Sun Yu, the fifth seed, by a runaway 21-11, 21-15 scoreline.
From the bottom half of the draw, reigning world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin of Spain, seeded No 2, qualified to take on Japan’s unseeded Nozomi Okuhara at the last-four stage. Okuhara slipped it across her fellow-Japanese Uber Cup teammate, Akane Yamaguchi, at 21-18, 22-20, while Marin gained sweet revenge over Thailand’s 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon, for her defeat at the recent All England Championships.
The 23-year-old Spaniard simply wore down her Thai rival, one year her junior, by a 21-8, 18-21, 21-12 margin, to record only her second victory over Intanon in seven career meetings. Marin’s superior fitness, speed of foot and left-hander’s natural advantage effectively neutralised the Thai girl’s eye-filling, deceptive strokeplay in a vastly entertaining match that went two minutes over the hour mark.
Saturday’s ten semi-finals have been broken up into two playing sessions of five matches each, starting at 10:30 AM (08:00 IST) and 5:30 PM (15:00 IST). The Lin Dan — Son Wan Ho is the only singles match of the morning session.
Updated Date: Apr 08, 2017 10:02:16 IST