Viktor Axelsen’s gold medal, Denmark’s first since 1996, was the story of the final day, but until then all the attention in men’s singles was upon a phenomenon from Guatemala.
Kevin Cordon blazed through the event like a shooting star – just as brilliantly, and as mysteriously.
It was attention richly deserved, for it had come without any prior notice. Cordon’s last significant achievement at a major event was at the World Championships 2011 when he beat Chen Long. Yet, at Tokyo 2020, he displayed skills that were considered the preserve of top 10 players.
Spectacularly, against opponent after opponent, he jumped high, Zhao Jianhua-like, to smash with pinpoint precision; he also showed sufficient ability in other departments to make everyone wonder where he’d been all these years.
Cordon’s first big upset was of Ng Ka Long Angus in straight games, followed by Mark Caljouw and Heo Kwang Hee, ensuring his place in the semifinals – a first for Guatemala. Cordon had become the biggest-ever underdog story of badminton.
Even Axelsen, in the semifinals, was cautious against Cordon until he had taken the first game.
What made the narrative so striking was Cordon’s personal story, of how he had left his home in rural Guatemala to pursue badminton, and how he’d kept himself going over many years despite the scarcity of resources. Little wonder then that he was treated to a hero’s welcome when he returned home after the Olympics.
As for Axelsen, his success underlined the transition to the complete player he has now become. There was never a moment in the final, or indeed all through the event, when he relinquished control. All six of his matches were wrapped up in straight games.
Blow for Japan, Joy for China
The first blow to the hosts was the group stage defeat of world champion and top seed Kento Momota, who was carrying a mountain of expectations. The world No.1 looked ill at ease against Heo Kwang Hee, who tore apart his defence in straight games. The defeat set the tone, as it were, for the rest of the home team’s campaign, with the other contenders too faltering.
Tokyo 2020 was expected to be the stage for the younger generation of men’s singles shuttlers. Yet, 32-year-old Chen Long, who has had few major successes since Rio 2016, turned the clock back with a performance right out of his prime years.
All England champion Lee Zii Jia in the Round of 16 was his first big test. In one of the most riveting contests of the Olympics, Lee blew aside Chen in the opening game, but once Chen got his defensive game to absorb the Malaysian’s big punches, the tide turned his way.
The defending champion then outlasted Chou Tien Chen in a long match, before taking on Anthony Sinisuka Ginting in the semifinals. Ginting couldn’t stitch together a long enough spell of error-free badminton, even as Chen stayed steady as a rock. The 21-16 21-11 result gave Chen his second successive Olympic final.
Ginting was able to put behind the disappointment of his semifinal loss and stay focussed for his bronze medal playoff against Cordon. The Guatemalan’s fairytale run came to an end with his straight-games defeat to the Indonesian.
♦Aram Mahmoud made history both for his homeland Syria and for the IOC Refugee Team when he took the court against Jonatan Christie in Group G. The Syrian gave a good account of himself despite straight-games defeats to Christie and Loh Kean Yew.
♦Among the young players to impress were Canada’s Brian Yang, who nearly beat Chou Tien Chen in Group P, Ireland’s Nhat Nguyen, who stretched Wang Tzu Wei to three games in Group L, and Azerbaijan’s Ade Resky Dwicahyo, who beat veteran Nguyen Tien Minh.
♦One of the closest men’s singles matches at Tokyo 2020 was the quarterfinal between Anders Antonsen and Anthony Ginting. Antonsen, who had earlier this year won the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2020, was pipped at the post in a tense duel by Ginting, who took the match 21-18 in the third.