Saturday, March 7, 2009

All England Semi-finals - Richard Eaton

by Richard Eaton

Lee Chong Wei signalled his determination to atone for his defeat in the Olympic final six months ago with an impressive performance in reaching the final of the All-England Open for the first time.

The top-seeded Malaysian destroyed Taufik Hidayat, the former Olympic and world champion from Indonesia 21-8, 21-13 in little more than half an hour to earn an eagerly anticipated repeat encounter with Lin Dan, the hero of Beijing.

True, Hidayat looked a little slow after his superb but tiring preformance in bringing down Peter Gade, the former world number one from Denmark, the day before, and going to three games with England's Andrew Smith the day before that. But Lee was explosive in attack, resilient in defence, and occasionally inspired as he contained the best shots that his celebrated opponent could throw at him.

The first game was one way traffic, partly because Taufik's error ratio was so high. The second saw Taufik play much better, and Lee's standard improved by even more. The highlight was a sensational rally at 13-12, when Taufik was well in the match, but no matter how hard he tried to push for a winner with smashes and attempted kills, Lee plunged around the court and got everything back.

The Malaysian then played an express sequence of piston-like mid-court exchanges, and finished the point with a winning jab. That took the momentum out of Taufik's partial recovery, and it was not long before Lee was making rapid progress, often with smashes to the body, which sometimes exposed the Indonesian as a little slow.

“Everyone wants to see a repeat of the Olympic final,” said Lee afterwards. “And I will do my best. It will be a difficult match.”

It will indeed, for Lin has won eight of his last nine meetings against the current world number one, and looked in very good form in ending the All-England title defence of his Chinese compatriot, Chen Jing.

He once again displayed his vast range of options, both in attack and defence, and his versatility in switching between them with disconcerting suddenness, to take an early 7-1 and stay well in front all through.

It was about halfway through the second game that Chen began to suffer further difficulties with an enduring back problem, and with the score at 21-12, 11-6 he retired. Both finalists should be relatively fresh for their showdown.

However it was women's singles semi-final between the other top seed, Tine Rasmussen, and the unseeded Chinese player Jiang Yanjiao which produced the best match and the best recovery in this and most other tournaments.

The Dane was so far behind, trailing by a game and 6-15, and then by 9-17, that her title defence seemed over, but somehow she came back to win 22-24, 25-23, 21-15. Rasmussen also saved match points at 19-20 and 22-23 in the second game, forsaking her usual robust attacking style and floating the shuttle around with pushes, clears and lifts, and gradually working her way back into it.

She managed to coax errors from her less experienced 22-year-old opponent, and by the time she had edged forward from 8-8 in the final game to 14-10 and 15-11 it had become evident she had the patience and determination to see the recovery through till the end.

Earlier however, nothing had seemed less likely. After missing a game point for the first game with a missed net shot from well above the height of the net, Rasmussen appeared to sink into a depression. Her body language slumped and her ability to attack diminished, perhaps hindered by the heel injury which had interrupted her preparation for much of the last two weeks.

But during the interval between games Rasmussen was exhorted to fight by Morten Frost, the four times former All-England, who also kept up a constant barrage of encouragement during the second half of the match.

“Morten told me to be patient and to fight,” said Rasmussen. “I think it was my patience more than anything which won it for me. I think it's the best comeback I have ever made and I feel great about it.

It was first time in 29 years that two Danes had reached the semi-finals of the women's singles, but Rasmussen will next play, not another Dane but another unseeded Chinese player, Wang Yihan.

Wang, a 21-year-old former world junior champion was a comfortable 21-11, 21-7 winner over the most surprising survivor, Nanna Brosolat, a 25-year-old from Copenhagen, who may however have been tired after coming through the qualifying competition.