Friday, August 19, 2016
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
The king has been knocked off his Olympic throne!
Lee Chong Wei finally shook off the big bogey that has burdened him all his career, beating his nemesis Lin Dan – 15-21 21-11 22-20 – in a spell-binding semi-final that stretched an hour and 23 minutes this morning.
Like a prisoner set free, the Men’s Singles top seed burst into celebration, then ran over and exchanged shirts with his great opponent – and friend.
“I’m very happy. This is the first time I’m beating Lin in a big competition,” Lee said.
“I lost both times in the final in 2008 and 2012. This is my last Olympics and I have never won the gold medal so now it’s just one more step. I’m very proud that both of us, at 33, can play in the semi-finals of the Olympic Games. Today we played a great match for the whole world to see.
“At 20-20 in my mind I just wanted to try my best; I just tried to enjoy the moment. I listened to my coach, tried my best and didn’t think so much. There was more pressure on me, right?”
Lee became the first singles player – and third player overall (joining China’s Gao Ling and Fu Haifeng) – to make three Olympic finals. The Malaysian faces two-time World champion Chen Long of China in the Men’s Singles final.
While Lee has one more step to climb before he wins his first Olympic Games gold, the victory today allows him to break free of the spectre of Lin Dan that has followed him like a shadow. At four major events – the Olympics in 2008 and 2012 and the BWF World Championships in 2011 and 2013 – Lee stumbled before Lin, and it was this historical context that hung heavily over today’s semi-final.
Lee’s recent form has been scintillating while Lin has left fans perplexed with his inconsistency. In the quarter-finals against India’s Kidambi Srikanth, Lin appeared weary and on tenterhooks, despite pulling out a narrow win. The questions therefore were: could Lin lift himself against his familiar rival? Could Lee maintain the form he has shown this season? Would Lin seal his cast-iron reputation at major events?
What unfolded was a magical session, rich with many intricacies, stunning in the spectacle of two gladiators setting stratospheric levels of court-craft, power and speed.
Lee started patiently, holding back his explosive bursts; the opening game was all thrust and parry; Lin keeping the lead and winning game point after a classic rally that he closed with a cross-court drive. With an explosive down-the-line smash, the defending champion was a game up and on his way to his third final.
Lee kept his high pace in the second, and Lin flagged. Like in his quarter-final against Srikanth, Lin appeared to be conserving his energy for the third.
It couldn’t have been any closer in the decider. From 6-6 it went to 16-16 without either player managing a two-point difference, each rally a tightrope; any slightly errant shuttle receiving immediate punishment.
Uncharacteristically, Lin was the one who blinked first, playing two loose points on either side of a blistering Lee body smash to allow the Malaysian to get a clear headway, at 19-16. Moments later, Lee had three match points.
The match had been on a knife’s edge all along, and the proceedings became thick with tension as Lin pulled back one point after another. At 20-20, with Lin winning a long exchange, a repeat of the 2011 World Championships in Wembley loomed – but there was to be no repeat. Lin made the fatal error at the net to give a fourth match point to his opponent; another tense exchange later, it was all over for the defending champion.
Lin acknowledged this was one the best matches he’d been in: “I think both of us were under similar pressure because both of us badly wanted to win this match. It brought out the best match possible as you can see in the way the crowd was cheering. I feel relieved because this match has ended.”
Two-time World champion Chen Long kept China in with a chance of its second gold medal at the Rio Olympics with a clinical defeat of Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen.
Chen has been troubled by the Dane in recent times, but today the World champion was in full flow. Axelsen was barely allowed to play his game, with Chen outplaying him on all counts. The end was quick – 21-14 21-15 – in under 30 minutes.
“This is just the semi-final, there’s one more match to go. I played well, will rest now and prepare for the final,” mumbled Chen before rushing off to his physio.
A dejected Axelsen admitted he did not come up with the goods: “I should’ve played much better. I tried to give everything, but it just didn’t happen today.
“Chen played really well. I was a bit tense in my arm, and he was disciplined. When you dedicate your whole life to sport and don’t achieve, it’s disappointing.
“I have to have a short memory now and play for bronze. The game is on again.”