BIRMINGHAM: Lee Chong Wei’s millions of supporters will be hoping that his bid to regain the All-England Open title here this week is not his last attempt at the world’s oldest badminton tournament, which begins again at Britain’s National Indoor Arena here on Wednesday (today). The world number one from Malaysia is top-seeded, favoured to avenge his loss to Chen Long in last year’s final, and employing his light-footed game at the age of 31 almost as nimbly as ever.
However, Lee originally planned to retire after the 2012 Olympics and has recently been suggesting that he may do so soon, perhaps after the Asian Games at Incheon in September. Even though he will be highly motivated to win the All-England for a third time – the Prime Minister of Malaysia congratulated him by cell-phone within minutes his last two triumphs – his mindset has new concerns. These include a need to be with his wife and baby, the constant pressure of being the main hope of an aspiring nation, and an occasional tendency to hyper-tension.
Lee prolonged his career only because he came so agonisingly close – just a couple of points – to the Olympic gold medal which would have been the first for any Malaysian in any sport. He felt a responsibility to see if another attempt was possible, but now doubts that he can. “I don’t know whether I can last until 2016 for the Olympics in Rio,” he said after winning the Malaysian Open in January. “I just cannot imagine how I would fare in three years’ time,” he added, exaggerating slightly the time until the next Games, when he will be 33.
He may well be mindful of his dramatic collapse at the world championships in Guangzhou in August, when he was struck down by cramp at match point in another thrillingly close encounter with China’s Lin Dan and stretchered off. Lee also failed to finish the 2012 All-England final against Lin, needing medical help three times. However he has been altering his tactical emphases so that there are fewer exhausting rallies.
His chances will be enhanced by Lin’s absence in Birmingham, but Lee’s coach Rashid Sidek makes it clear there is no complacency in approaching the All-England, which is still one of the top five tournaments. “We will put in an extra effort to prepare for this as it is a very prestigious tournament,” said Rashid, who was an All-England finalist in 1996. “The absence of Lin Dan does not mean Chong Wei can win the title hands down,” he added. “Other players, especially younger ones from China, are equally capable,” he added.
Rashid may be referring to Wang Zhengming, a 24-year-old from Guangzhou, and Tian Houwei, a 22-year-old from Fuzhou, or perhaps even Du Pengyu, the seventh seed. The biggest danger however is again likely to be Chen Long, who also beat Lee in the finals of the Denmark Open in October and the Korean Open in January, and is seeded for a re-match in Sunday’s final. Lee is possibly fitter now than he was a year ago, but may have to beware of a quarterfinal with Du. His semifinal should be against Jan Jorgensen, the fourth-seeded Dane, or Kenichi Tago, the fifth-seeded Japanese who beat Chen Long in Malaysia.
The women’s singles could produce a great semifinal showdown between Li Xuerui, the Olympic champion from China, and Ratchanok Intanon, the 19-year-old World champion from Thailand. Intanon upset Li in the world final seven months ago and was runner-up at last year’s All-England. The other semifinal should see a tussle between two former All-England champions from China, Wang Shixian, the fourth seed, and Wang Yihan, the second.
However Saina Nehwal, the Commonwealth champion from India, might upset such calculations, for after ending a 15-month title drought at the Indian Open in January she claimed she was back to her best. Seeded seventh, she should have a quarterfinal with Shixian. The titleholder, Tine Baun of Denmark, has retired and is expecting a baby; hence every leading woman’s singles player is now Asian. Chinese players are top-seeded in the women’s and mixed doubles too which means their country should at least equal the three titles they achieved last year. They also possess the fourth seeds in the men’s doubles, suggesting a repeat of the clean sweep of five titles they achieved five years ago is not impossible.
Men: 1 Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia); 2 Chen Long (China); 3 Tommy Sugiarto (Indonesia); 4 Jan Jorgensen (Denmark); 5 Kenichi Tago (Japan); 6 Boonsak Ponsana (Thailand); 7 Du Pengyu (China); 8 Tien Minh Nguyen (Vietnam).
Women: 1 Li Xuerui (China); 2 Wang Yihan (China); 3 Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand); 4 Wang Shixian (China); 5 Sung Ji-Hyun (Korea); 6Bae Yeon Ju (Korea); 7 Saina Nehwal (India); 8 Tai Tzu Ying (Taipei).
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