LONDON (AFP): Injury-hit badminton top seed Lee Chong Wei flirted with a shock first-round defeat before rallying to keep his Olympic dream alive.
Lee has not competed since suffering an ankle injury in May, and seemed to be wandering towards the exit at 11-11 in the final game against Ville Lang, the world number 45 from Finland, on Monday.
But then the former world number one from Malaysia, suddenly exploded into his real self, taking 10 points in a row with some high-paced attacks for a 21-8, 14-21, 21-11 win.
There had been no question of Lee toying with an opponent he might normally have beaten far more easily. Instead he had looked fragile, care-worn and shackled, and unlike a potential Olympic champion.
“I’ve only just come back from injury,” he said. “I just tried my best. I was quite slow. I have not played for two-and-a-half months. It was not the real Lee Chong Wei.
“But in my mind I am very very strong and this is the Olympics so I just decided I had to make a push. I have nothing to lose now.”
From 11-11 in the decider Lee seemed more prepared to risk his limbs in jump smashes and front-court lunges, and he also increased the pace in warm, fast conditions.
As the points came, he gradually lost his hangdog look, suggesting that it had been mental pressure, as much as lack of match practice, which had contributed to his worrying performance.
Lee will certainly need to improve to make progress in a section which contains Simon Santoso, the talented Indonesian, and in a half which has Chen Long, the former world junior champion from China and Peter Gade, the former world number one from Denmark.
He may have been helped a little by the defeat of Kenichi Tago, the eighth-seeded Japanese player who reached the All-England Open final two years ago. He was surprisingly edged out by Niluka Karunaratne, an improving Sri Lankan who has just reached the top 50.
Lee’s great rival Lin Dan, the Olympic champion, was a great contrast.
The brilliant Chinese player looked cool and in control as he comfortably overcame Scott Evans, the world number 76 from Ireland, 21-8, 21-14. Nevertheless, he said: “I’m still nervous.
“No one will know if they’ll come back next Olympics. I’ve been preparing since 2008 so I have put a lot into this. So I am very nervous. But if you want good results, it’s normal to be nervous.”
Gade, who has also been bothered by injury in his Olympic preparation, also made a sprint to the finish as he toook the last 10 points in a row in a 21-14, 21-8 win against Pedro Martins of Portugal.
“It’s nice to finish like that,” said the 35-year-old Gade, who is soon to retire. “It seems I’ve waited a long time to get here.”
The two top Chinese women both reached the last 16. Second seed Wang Xin beat Wang Rena of the United States 21-8, 21-6, and top-seeded world champion Wang Yihan beat Michele Li of Canada 21-8, 21-16.
It was a return to the arena where Wang Yihan won the world title 11 months ago. “I was very eager to be there,” she said. “But I made some mistakes and there was a spell in the second game where we were deadlocked, and I shall let that be a warning to me.”
One of the two biggest threats to the Chinese, Saina Nehwal, the Commonwealth champion from India, won well for the second time and spoke of the pressure of expectations she bears.
“It’s love of country but you win one medal and they put pressure on you,” she said after her 21-4, 21-12 win over Lianne Tan of Belgium.
“I appreciate the support, but at this stage I would rather go through quietly and focus on what I am doing.” She now has a day’s rest.
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