Tuesday, August 22, 2017
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
It will rank as the biggest upset at a World Championships in recent times. Top contender Lee Chong Wei’s dreams of a first World title lay in the dust as he succumbed to Brice Leverdez in his opening Men’s Singles contest of the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2017 today.
Not since top seed Lin Dan’s 2004 Olympic Games first round loss to Singapore’s Ronald Susilo has the badminton world witnessed as extraordinary a result as this, so early, in an event of this scale. Lee, finalist at every World Championships and Olympics since 2011, displayed the infirmities of lesser mortals, looking nowhere near his high standard in a 21-19 22-24 21-17 loss in Glasgow.
Leverdez of course richly deserved his victory – if nothing else, for the fact that he shrugged off the loss of two match points in the second game to keep his focus on the third. The Frenchman – who had beaten Lee last year at the Yonex Denmark Open – was pacy and aggressive all through, giving Lee nothing to work with. And yet, it was an uncharacteristically nervy display from Lee that saw him dig his own grave, as it were.
The second seed failed to impose himself as he gave far too many openings; his defence was frequently in tatters and his attack lacking in precision. Down 13-18 in the second, a murmur went through the crowd; among those watching keenly was five-time champion Lin Dan. Lee shook off the cobwebs temporarily with seven straight points – his most impressive phase – but a lazy backhand gifted the initiative back to Leverdez, who had two match points before Lee wriggled out, thanks in part to a line call challenge that went his way.
Lin Dan walked out at this point, probably certain that his great rival had quelled his nerves and was on course for a second round spot. Having clinched the second game, Lee appeared more at ease; his blistering attack finally punching some holes in Leverdez’s court, and he sat pretty with a 14-9 lead.
And then it all went wrong for the Malaysian. Leverdez stayed spiritedly in the contest. The Malaysian crumbled in a clutch of misfired smashes, scratchy defensive work and absence of finesse at the net. Three soft errors hastened his demise, and as Lee picked himself off the floor after the final point, Leverdez raised his arms to the crowd.
Lee kept a brave face despite the enormity of the loss: “It’s okay. I tried my best. I didn’t play well, I made a lot of simple mistakes.”
Asked if the pressure had got to him, he said: “Pressure is normal…. in the second game I had a lucky point at 21-22. After I took that game, I got a lead in the rubber game. He won a couple of lucky points at the net. I know I tried my best.”
Lee was asked the inevitable question about retirement.
“I don’t know. I’m blank right now. Maybe I’ll retire tomorrow. Everybody wants to know if I will play until Tokyo 2020. I will see if I have the fire. If I don’t, I’ll retire.”
Leverdez said staying relaxed had helped him: “I was trying to be as light-hearted as possible. The conditions were perfect today. I know I was in trouble at 10-15 in the third, I just told myself to play safe and get in the game again, and wait for one or two errors from him. Show him that you’re not giving him easy points, and it worked. I knew I had to attack all the way, I played well at the net, I knew I would have only one chance at the net with him. Mostly, it was about staying relaxed. I had fun since the first point, no matter if I won or lost the point… I think at 17-all he lost his mind and gave me the match with three easy points.”
Other Men’s Singles players to progress included Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long, India’s Sai Praneeth and Germany’s Marc Zwiebler.
Europe had another big result with Ireland’s Sam Magee/Chloe Magee pulling off an upset over Mixed Doubles No.16 seeds Yuta Watanabe/Arisa Higashino (Japan). The Ireland pair shrugged off the loss of the second game to stay in the hunt and keep their focus against Japan’s brightest Mixed Doubles prospects.
“We wanted to neutralise his (Yuta Watanabe’s) speed by playing a lot of control. We knew if we played hard and fast he would eat us up, but if we could take away the speed a little bit and make them play a little bit softer – that really was our game plan,” said Sam Magee. “They played really well at the Sudirman Cup, and I watched them beat China. So it feels great to beat the No.16 seeds.”
The Magees next face Olympic champions Tontowi Ahmad/Liliyana Natsir (Indonesia), who eased past Chinese Taipei’s Tseng Min Hao/Hu Ling Fang 21-13 21-11.
In the top half, England’s Chris Adcock/Gabrielle Adcock had an equally easy victory over France’s Bastian Kersaudy/Lea Palermo; their next opponents will be Japan’s Kenta Kazuno/Ayane Kurihara.
“I think the Japanese pair will be better, they’re seeded, they’re solid. We know what to expect, it will be a completely different game plan against them, we will really have to bring our game for that,” said Chris Adcock.
China’s Wang Yilyu/Huang Dongping overcame spirited resistance from India’s Sumeeth Reddy/Ashwini Ponnappa in the second game to prevail in three games.
Women’s Singles World Junior champion Chen Yufei (China) started her campaign on a sound note, beating Chinese Taipei’s Pai Yu Po 21-13 21-14.