BEIJING?Next to Yao Ming and the 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang, the athlete the 1.3 billion Chinese admire the most swings a badminton stick. In this game played by everyone Chinese?from 66-year-olds to those aged 6?he has won, among dozens of trophies, the last two world championships. He’s the Michael Phelps of shuttlecocks; the Tiger Woods of lobs and drop shots.
Two nights ago, we watched Lin Dan. What a sight! For here was an Olympiad who glided on court. He floated. Light on his feet, he didn’t belabor sprinting from right corner to left corner, he tip-toed. Skipped. He drifted. And while others scooted to retrieve shots, he’d hopped like a grasshopper. He’s Mikhail Baryshnikov wearing shorts.
Lin Dan played Park Sunghwan and how he made the world no. 10 look like a novice. With their longest rally at 53 strokes, Lin Dan would angle a drop shot, hurl a towering lob behind the Korean’s outstretched arms, make him twist and twirl his torso, then he’d soar on air and bang a smash.
To me, the 24-year-old Lin Dan is a combination of Roger and Rafa. Like Federer, he’s relaxed, poised, never hurried, in command and has reigned as world no.1 since 2004. Yet like Rafa, he’s left-handed, pumps his fist after scorching a winner, and, like the Spaniard, he wears a sleeveless Nike top to reveal his bulging biceps.
With nary a sweat, Lin Dan won 21-8, 21-11.
Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium?that’s the badminton venue, located all the way southeast, about 23 kms. from the Olympic Village.
Outside, this brand-new stadium of gray steel and reflective glass is glimmering, towering and all-quiet. But inside, it speaks a different story: it’s all noise with thousands of Chinese (unlike tennis, we barely saw foreigner spectators) who waved red flags, painted their cheeks with the Olympic rings, and stood to cheer, “CHAI! YO! CHAI! YO!” (Chi! Na!).
Inside the 7,500-seater gymnasium, three courts sat on the floor. Flags of the countries represented hung from the rafters. (Sadly, no RP flag was flown; the Manila-based Asuncion siblings, Kennevic and Kennie, failed to qualify.) Two giant TV screens showed replays. Spectators circled the rectangular-shaped arena.
Apart from Lin Dan, we were treated to several more enthralling matches as games were on-going on all three courts. The world no. 1 men’s doubles pairing of Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan of Indonesia played the world no. 9 duo of Guo and Xie from China. And their encounter, unlike the one-sided contest of Lin Dan, was a tough contest between the Indons, wearing all-black, and the red-colored Chinese.
Home-court advantage, it’s called, and, thus far in our Olympic watch here, it’s a big, big asset. With their countrymen cheering, the Chinese pair held a set point but failed to convert and lost the first set. They won the 2nd set. In the decider, it was a thriller: the score was tied 16-all before the Indonesians surged ahead to deflate the Chinese.
One point stood out in particular: after a flurry of rapid-fire net exchanges, the Indon was forced to dive for a shot and fell. The Chinese capitalized on the fall and hit the shuttlecock straight to him. Lying on his back, the Indon swatted back an amazing shot which caught the Chinese off-guard. As the Chinese sent back a weak reply, the Indonesian stood up, jumped then unleashed a booming smash that hushed the gymnasium.
Peter Gade of Denmark we also saw. And what a remarkable game. Down two match points in the 2nd set against Shoji Sato of Japan, he clawed his way back to win the third set, 21-15.
Another exciting match was the mixed doubles encounter of Great Britain’s Roberston/Emms vs. China’s Gao/Zheng. What a see-saw fight. The Chinese lost the first set, won the next and, when it looked like they were poised to beat the British, they choked?and lost.
But, looking back at those three festive hours (from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.) watching this sport that has mushroomed and boomed in Cebu, one sight towers tallest: China’s?and the world’s?No.1, Lin Dan.