Since London 2012, six World Championships and an Olympics passed by without China reclaiming the crown that they once had a firm grip on. When Tokyo 2020 arrived, China’s prospects – Chen Yu Fei’s in particular – weren’t considered significantly higher that of her principal opponents such as Tai Tzu Ying, Pusarla V. Sindhu, Nozomi Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi and Ratchanok Intanon. Besides, there was the long layoff from international badminton for the Chinese team. How much would that impact Chen Yu Fei and her compatriot He Bing Jiao?
Not much, as it turned out. Both Chen and He Bing Jiao performed with the assurance of astute preparation.
He Bing Jiao’s defeat of Nozomi Okuhara in the quarterfinals was one instance of how tactically well-prepared the Chinese were. Okuhara, one of the prime contenders for the title, was never able to impose her running game on the match as He Bing Jiao displayed great finesse in movement and placement to torpedo the home favourite.
Then, again, in the final against the maverick gifts of Tai Tzu Ying, Chen Yu Fei was all patience and precision. She had her running shoes on, and even though she was caught off-guard a number of times, she stonewalled the No.1 for long spells; but equally, she was able to push the pace and fire winners at opportune moments. At the end of the physically intense contest, Chen looked weary but Tai couldn’t capitalise; instead, a flurry of errors came from her racket, enabling the Chinese finally to reclaim the title that was last won for the Chinese by Li Xue Rui in 2012.
It was an anti-climactic end to what had been a great contest between a player with the most varied attack, and someone capable of holding fort.
Tai Lights Up Contest
Tai will look back at her campaign with mixed feelings. While she couldn’t quite finish off the job, she can still rejoice at how far she’d gone. Her entry into the semifinals was itself a first, for she had never passed the quarterfinals at previous Olympics and World Championships. Her victories over Ratchanok Intanon in the quarterfinals and Pusarla V Sindhu in the semifinals were a showcase of her immense talent, and when she so artistically sliced her way into the final, she had assured herself of a medal at the major events for the first time.
In the other half of the draw, Chen was first challenged in the quarterfinals by An Se Young, and even though the Korea teen fell in straight games, she showed enough verve to suggest that bigger moments are not too far away.
The all-Chinese semifinal between Chen and He Bing Jiao was a long, defensive affair, for both were intimately aware of each other’s strengths. Chen’s steadiness in long-drawn battles sealed the match in her favour, 21-12 in the third. He Bing Jiao would also lose the bronze medal playoff, to Pusarla, who continued to build on her impressive record at major tournaments with her second Olympic medal.
♦The most painful moment of the Olympics happened on the sixth day of competition, in the women’s singles Round of 16. Beiwen Zhang led He Bing Jiao 21-14 7-9 when she fell to the floor in pain and had to be wheeled out with an Achilles tendon injury.
♦Pusarla V Sindhu was expected to have some trouble against Mia Blichfeldt in the same round, the Dane having beaten her in January, but the Indian came through in straight games. Akane Yamaguchi was next, and yet again Pusarla’s powerful attacking game was on target as she ended Japan’s hopes in women’s singles.
♦There were some notable achievements in the group clashes. Vietnam’s Thuy Linh Nguyen and Turkey’s Neslihan Yigit were both combative, against Tai Tzu Ying and Chen Yu Fei respectively, while Malaysia’s Soniia Cheah came close to upsetting Ratchanok Intanon.
♦Among the first-time nations at the Olympics were Myanmar (Thet Htar Thuzar), Pakistan (Mahoor Shahzad) and Maldives (Fathimath Nabaaha Abdul Razzaq). Soraya Aghaeihajiagha scored a first win for Iran at the Olympics with her defeat of Abdul Razzaq in Group G.
♦Egypt’s Doha Hany competed in three events – women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles.