Monday, August 15, 2016
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR & GAYLE ALLEYNE| BADMINTONPHOTO
China’s ‘Great Wall’ of Mixed Doubles crumbled and crashed spectacularly tonight as the stellar pairings of Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei and Xu Chen/Ma Jin – the Olympic gold and silver medallists respectively four years ago – were ousted in straight games.
Playing on adjoining courts in Riocentro – Pavilion 4, the long-standing partnerships that have earned countless honours for their country perished in the semi-finals within minutes of each other.
First, an incredible and resolute performance by Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying withstood the pressure, experience and monster hitting from across the net to defeat Xu and Ma who had appeared a rejuvenated unit at Rio 2016, seeking a last hurrah at the highest level.
Winning 21-12 21-19, the Malaysians gave their nation a shot at its first Olympic gold medal in badminton.
Moments later, reigning champions Zhang and Zhao were condemned to face their team-mates for bronze, clinically and calmly beaten by Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir (featured image) of Indonesia; a pair who have suffered many agonising defeats at their rivals’ hands. Zhang and Zhao both arrived in Brazil with dreams of claiming a record third gold medal. Such ambitions lay in tatters as they trudged off court. Zhao, double titlist at London 2012, and Zhang, a gold medallist in London and in contention for two golds here in Rio, folded in straight games: 21-16 21-15.
Head coach Li Yongbo watched silently from courtside as two of his brightest stars gradually wilted from their opponents’ incisive attack, clearly unable to find the answers on this occasion. As frenzied celebrations erupted among Indonesia’s noisy ranks, Li hustled away in the wake of a stinging night for the badminton powerhouse.
After a morning session in which everything went China’s way, the evening session veered off script. An all-China final was a strong possibility considering the recent form of the two pairs: Ahmad and Natsir had lost their last eight encounters to Zhang/Zhao while Xu/Ma boasted a 7-2 record over Chan and Goh.
Despite the negative record, the Malaysians were fearless, standing toe-to-toe with the Chinese. Goh prevented Ma Jin from exerting her influence at the net, while Chan picked off winners with his smash. A close second game was level at 18 before it swung Malaysia’s way after a tremendous rally, with Ma Jin unable to defend Chan’s smash. The Malaysians pounced on the opening to seal a stirring victory in front of Malaysian government, sporting and other officials who shouted and leapt to their feet in celebration.
The Mixed Doubles duo became the first Malaysian pair in an Olympic final since 1996, when Cheah Soon Kit/Yap Kim Hock made the Men’s Doubles final. Chan/Goh’s surge into the final left in its wake China’s Xu Chen and Ma Jin, who were stopped from repeating their performance in London 2012, when they made the final.
“We still can’t believe we are in the final,” said Chan. “We had dreamed about this but to have actually done it is an amazing feeling. We knew we had a chance as the Chinese were under pressure. We told ourselves that we had to be focussed and minimise mistakes.”
“We constantly encouraged each other. We were just thinking of taking it point by point, and not to think too far ahead,” said his partner.
Meanwhile, Zhang/Zhao had lost the opening game to Ahmad and Natsir on the neighbouring court. The Indonesians played patiently, easing the shuttle into spaces and waiting for the opening – and the tactic appeared to work as the Chinese got frustrated with the lack of pace. Zhang – possibly feeling the effects of his long Men’s Doubles match earlier – was a shade below par, while Zhang’s confidence appeared to desert her. Even though the Chinese levelled a four-point difference in the second, Ahmad and Natsir stuck to their task and opened up another big lead that sealed China’s demise.
“We feel so happy today winning this match,” said Natsir. “But we don’t want to get too excited because there’s the final. They key to our success today was that we stayed calm and supported each other. The Malaysian pair is strong, so we will have to stay focused. We want to finish this event with a gold. Anything can happen in an Olympic final. We have to be cautious. I’ve been in an Olympic final before, and I can feel the same pressure as back then.”
Asked if the win today had exorcised the bitterness of losing to Zhang/Zhao in the semi-finals of the TOTAL BWF World Championships on home turf, Ahmad said: “Maybe we will make up for that disappointment if we win the final.”
Intanon, Tai Bow Out
The evening session also saw the abrupt exits of Women’s Singles fourth seed Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand) and eighth seed Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei). Ratchanok was undone by the pace and power of Akane Yamaguchi (Japan), while Tai went down in identical fashion to India’s PV Sindhu.
Japan were assured of a semi-final spot, with Nozomi Okuhara making the quarter-finals opposite Yamaguchi after beating Korea’s Bae Yeon Ju 21-6 21-7.
The 5-0 career record that Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto enjoyed over Rajiv Ouseph counted for little in their Men’s Singles pre-quarter-final today as the Briton finally broke the jinx.
Showing qualities of stubborn resolve, Ouseph outlasted Sugiarto 21-13 14-21 21-16 in 66 minutes.
Ouseph’s quarter-final opponent will be Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen, who had little trouble getting past Ireland’s Scott Evans, 21-16 21-12.