World champion Chen Long began his defence of the title at the Super Series finals in Dubai with performances on and off court that helped make up for the absence of his legendary compatriot Lin Dan.
Chen delivered a composed and versatile performance in a 21-13, 21-13 victory over another Chinese team mate, Tian Houwei, and handled yet another of the many questions referring to the missing Olympic champion with diplomatic good humour.
The bases of Chen’s victory over Tian, Lin’s late replacement, included a confidence in coping with the slightly drifty conditions in the same arena where he triumphed last year, and a relaxed willingness to accept whatever outcome, a relatively new psychological skill for him.
Chen has become very much his own man now, and he was prepared to answer whether he thought Lin Dan would be missed. “Don’t say that – Lin Dan won’t be happy with it,” he said, elaborating more seriously by adding “every athlete sometimes doesn’t feel well.”
Actually Chen admits to being not in the best shape himself after a hard year of touring, and was critical of his performance.
It wasn’t a great match, he thought – though it was notable that he usually took sequences of points when he needed them against a younger and ambitious opponent.
“I’m expected to win but I don’t feel pressure,” Chen said, concluding with a dash of wisdom. “There are only two possible results, and I have the confidence to accept failure if I lose.”
Refusal to accept failure characterised the performance of Ratchanok Intanon, the 20-year-old former world champion from Thailand, who stunningly saved four match points in a 19-21, 23-21, 21-14 victory over Sung Ji-Hyun, the world number four from South Korea.
Three of them came in a row from 17-20 in the second game. “I just tried not to think too much,” Intanon said. “That’s what I do in training. And after saving those points I felt that I could control her.”
She also volunteered rather gallantly that Sung may have developed a strain which hampered her movement in the final set.
Such sympathy did not prevent the young Thai from ramping up the speed of the rallies, and creating a range of attacking patterns which were as impressive as her ability to deal with her emotions.
Earlier the other world number one, Carolina Marin, had to come from behind in the first game before starting impressively with a 21-16, 21-9 win over Tai Tzu Ying, the women’s singles Super Series titleholder from Taiwan.
The remarkable 22-year-old Spaniard has won the world, All-England and four other Super Series titles this year but never this one, and attributed an acceleration towards victory partly to getting the shuttles replaced early on.
“They were too slow,” she said. “I had to get the speed changed and that made a difference.”
There were also curiously mixed fortunes for Chinese players.
Former world champion Wang Yihan won an opener against her team mate, the former world number one Wang Shixian, by 21-19, 13-21, 21-3, though both can still qualify from their group.
Earlier the tournament began with an upset, both emotional and statistical, when Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei, a married couple who are the Olympic champions, the titleholders, and the best mixed doubles partnership for a good long time, lost a little sleepily by 21-15, 21-12 to Lee Chun Hei and Chau Hoi Wah, compatriots from Hong Kong ranked nine places lower.
It seemed the ten o’clock start was just a bit much for them.
Results in the group stages of the Super Series finals in Dubai:
Jan Jorgensen (DEN) bt Hu Yun (HKG) 21-10, 23-21
Chen Long (CHN) bt Tian Houwei (CHN)21-13, 21-13
Kento Momota (JPN) bt Kidambi Srikanth (IND) 21-13, 21-13
Viktor Axelsen (DEN) bt Chou Tien Chen (TPE) 21-8, 21-16
Carolina Marin (ESP) bt Tai Tzu Ying (TPE) 21-16, 21-9
Nozomi Okuhara (JPN) bt Saina Nehwal (IND) 21-14, 21-
Ratchanok Intanon (THA) bt Sung Ji-Hyun (KOR) 19-21, 23-21, 21-14
Wang Yihan (CHN) bt Wang Shixian (CHN) 21-19, 13-21, 21-13
– Agence France-Presse