Highly-contrasting victories today – a comprehensive beatdown followed by a tough and fortuitous escape – have given badminton fans exactly what they wanted: one last Olympic battle between the sport’s two biggest personalities, Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan.
Their semi-final blockbuster at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was signed and sealed when Lee swatted aside quarter-final challenger, Chou Tien Chen – 21-9 21-15 – and two-time defending Men’s Singles champion, Lin Dan, squeezed past Kidambi Srikanth of India (21-6 11-21 21-18).
At one stage, the showdown, set for Friday at 8.30 am (Rio time), looked in danger of not happening as Srikanth produced a stunning reversal of fortune in the second game of his quarter-final and then propelled to a handy 13-10 lead in the third. It was not just that he was ahead of his Chinese rival on the scoreboard but rather the commanding, and almost aggressive manner, in which he wrestled control from the visibly rattled Lin.
Shaking off a lacklustre start which saw him earn a mere nine points in the first game, Srikanth unleashed a torrent of smashes and other sharp shots on Lin who was slow in reacting to the Indian’s precision and quicker pace. In short order, it was a game apiece and all to play for in the decider.
Scores kept close in the early going until Srikanth raised his tempo again to pull ahead, flag-waving Indian fans cheering and chanting boisterously as one of his smashes zeroed in successfully on Lin’s chest.
The Olympic champion was shaken, even his coaches appeared concerned as they shouted advice to him.
Some loose shots from Srikanth, with Lin playing safe from across the net, allowed the title-holder back level and it was again a neck-and-neck tussle for points with an absorbing mix of wristy net shots and testing rallies. Again, at crucial junctures, Srikanth erred in length or line or Lin found the odd winner. It was enough to get the Chinese to 17-20 before finally Lin pounced at net to flick the winning point into the back court.
Letting out a massive sigh of relief, Lin left the court knowing he was lucky to still be in the tournament.
“Srikanth improved a lot in the second game and I was nervous. The third game was a battle of mental strength – mine against his. He was very brave in attacking and, on the contrary, I was thinking a lot and was not focused properly,” said the 32-year-old who is seeking an unprecedented hat-trick of Olympic badminton titles.
“A lot of spectators were cheering for Srikanth and I tried to block them out and not let that bother me.”
Having surrendered the first game cheaply, Srikanth was determined “to give all I got” in the second and was pleased with the results his attacking strategy yielded.
“I didn’t want to lose so badly. Being aggressive really helped me. I am happy with the way I played but still I feel I could have won the match. I was leading the third game and a few simple mistakes cost me,” said the loser, ruing his decision to ‘go for broke’ at the end.
“I should have played safer at the end…but I am still happy with my performance overall.”
Meanwhile, another player who was expected to test the big boys – Chou Tien Chen – may have to think again after the masterclass which he received from Lee Chong Wei. The Malaysian world No.1 enjoyed almost complete control of their encounter, pulling and pushing his opponent around the court at will while dominating at the net.
Strongly-built Chou tried to make inroads in the middle of the second game, clawing to within three points of Lee at 12-15 down. However, the two-time Olympic silver medallist was in no mood to be trifled with and again showed who was boss as he finished off his junior rival with another clinical array of shots, including a telling drop winner which frustrated Chou who had been in the ascendancy in the point up until then.
Lee delighted the crowd with another tasty net drop to move into the semi-finals yet again and a date with his familiar nemesis, Lin Dan.
“I focused on this match and tried not to think too much about whether I play Lin Dan or Srikanth in the semi-final. I hope I can do like our Mixed Doubles and Men’s Doubles pairs and reach the final,” said the 33-year-old, refusing to be drawn on his thoughts about the match with Lin Dan.
The other Men’s quarter-finals went according to expectations as No.2 and No.4 seeds, Chen Long of China and Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen, progressed to duel for a place in the Rio 2016 gold-medal match.
Chen Long rebounded from dropping the second game to Korea’s Son Wan Ho to claim the decider; the overall score 21-11 18-21 21-11 to the rock-solid Chinese seeking to emerge from Lin’s shadow once and for all with the Olympic crown. Axelsen dismantled Britain’s Rajiv Ouseph for a routine 21-12 21-16 triumph.