The drought continued for one; a glorious new chapter opened for the other.
Lee Chong Wei’s bitter harvest from Olympic finals had no let-up as China’s Chen Long (featured image) powered past him, 21-18 21-18, to seize the Men’s Singles title today. It was the third successive Olympic Games in which the ace player has had to settle for silver, having lost to Chen’s team-mate, Lin Dan, in Beijing and London. In addition, Lee has lost a combined four World Championships finals to his two arch-rivals.
The Badminton Competition at Rio 2016 ended with Lee smashing wide; another errant shot in a strangely lacklustre display. As he looked resignedly towards his coaches, his conqueror was a picture of unbridled and emotional rejoicing, tightly hugging his coaches Li Yongbo and Xia Xuanze as thousands of jubilant fans celebrated in Riocentro – Pavilion 4.
Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen grabbed the bronze medal earlier, outplaying Lin Dan in the play-off match, 15-21 21-10 21-17.
“I haven’t won the Olympic gold in three finals. I must accept this,” said a visibly drained Lee.
“My opponent played better. I have one more year to go. I will play till the World Championships next year.”
In winning in the Brazilian city, the new champion matched Women’s Singles winner, Carolina Marin of Spain in adding the Olympic gold medal to back-to-back World Championships in 2014 and 2015. Both athletes were crowned BWF Players of the Year in 2015 but have found the going tough in 2016 so far, not winning on the MetLife BWF Superseries circuit – but they have shown their mettle for all the world to see here in Rio.
“It’s a great feeling. I have won the World Championships, but to win the Olympics is something else because it happens only once in four years,” said Chen Long. “I’m overwhelmed. I was inspired by my teammates who won the gold medal in Men’s Doubles yesterday. My win today has everything to do with them.
“Although the match was over in straight games, it was very tough as both of us spared no effort. I must thank Chong Wei. We youngsters have learned a lot from seniors like him and Lin Dan. They never give up. I saw Lin Dan playing for bronze – I know how tough it is to play for third place, because I’ve done it myself. The first match that left a deep impression on me was the 2008 Beijing Olympics final, which Lin Dan won. These players deserve our respect.”
Chen also revealed that China’s quarter-final exit at the TOTAL BWF Thomas Cup had stung the team.
“After we lost the Thomas Cup quarter-finals, we put in a lot of work with the coaches over the last two months, and that helped tremendously,” said the imposing 27-year-old.
Lee started against Chen in the same fashion as he did against Lin Dan in the semi-finals, playing a patient game, making Chen do all the hard running. The twinkle-toed Malaysian glided around and caressed the shuttle, running Chen ragged from baseline to net, back and forth, and eased to a healthy 13-9 lead.
Something happened at this point that defined the rest of the match: errors began to flow from the top seed’s racket. His touch at the net, those feathery net shots that he had shown such mastery over earlier this week, began to betray him. Chen caught up at 13, shot into the lead and snatched the first game at 18.
For a while in the second, Lee appeared to bounce back with his quick, aggressive game, to hold the lead at 8-5.
Yet again, despite being ahead, the star player became tentative. Some wild smashes from Lee helped Chen go 9-8 up, and by the interval, the Malaysian looked visibly weary. Chen had reeled off six straight points.
The two-time World champion continued his astounding level of athleticism, chasing everything down, leaping at the first opportunity and gaining bit by bit with unceasing attack. Lee, on the other hand, was mostly reactive, rather than testing his opponent with the hustling game of pace that is his speciality. His masterly control too was no longer in evidence as shuttle after shuttle was hit too long or into the net. A belated raid helped him to 18-20, until another wide smash gave his rival the third big title of his career.
Asked if his long semi-final win over Lin Dan had drained him, 33-year-old Lee refused to offer excuses: “I wasn’t tired. My fitness was okay. I led 11-7 in the first game and Chen Long changed his shots. I made some simple mistakes and he got confident. Tactically, I don’t think I made mistakes. It’s just that he played better. In 2012, I was nervous, but today I wasn’t. I must accept this result.”
How difficult was it to swallow the loss of another major final?
“I want to rest. I miss my kids and family as I came early to Rio. I do have regrets at losing today. I have three silver medals. Malaysian fans must’ve hoped for gold.”
‘Viktor-y’ for Axelsen
Viktor Axelsen promised to have a short memory after his semi-final loss to Chen Long yesterday, and the Dane was true to his word.
After a below-par performance yesterday, the big Dane was in his groove against Lin Dan in the play-off. The match hung precariously in the third, with both remaining level until the late stages. Lin’s craft and control kept him in the hunt against his hungry young challenger, but the break came when he sent a clear long to give Axelsen the lead at 18-17.
The No.4 seed stormed the breach, extracting a lift off the next point, and winning match point when Lin got unlucky on a shuttle that fell back off the tape. The final kill for Axelsen aptly summed up the authority which he had displayed in not letting the occasion get the better of him.
“When you’ve worked so hard for something for so long then of course it’s the best feeling in the world,” said the 22-year-old.
“I can’t describe my feeling, it’s hard to put into words. I’m happy I managed to do this. I grew up watching Lin Dan when I was a kid. I knew it would be tough, but I also knew he would’ve been tired after yesterday’s match.”
Asked about his post-Olympic plans, Lin did not rule out continuing his career.
“This is a huge chapter in my life. I will rest first and think about my options.”