Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei shrugged off eight years of Olympic heartbreak on Friday to defeat his nemesis Lin Dan 15-21, 21-11, 22-20 and reach the final of the men’s badminton after another classic encounter.
Having succumbed to Lin in the gold medal deciders at London and Beijing, top seed Lee gained sweet revenge by dumping out the Chinese great who saved three match points before finally breaking in a deciding game of unrelenting tension.
“I think this is my first time to beat Lin Dan at a big competition. And I lost twice in the 2008 and 2012 finals to him. I’m very proud to have beaten Lin Dan,” Lee, lathered in sweat after the exhausting clash, told reporters. “Today me and Lin Dan played a very good game. All who saw the match would think it was a great game.”
It felt like a gold medal match for Lee, who celebrated wildly as Malaysian fans erupted into thunderous cheers, but another formidable Chinese stands in the way of the veteran’s path to an elusive title.
Chen Long, long in the shadow of the brilliant Lin, humbled Danish fourth seed Viktor Axelsen 21-14, 21-15 to reach the final after grabbing the bronze four years ago. The 27-year-old beat Lee in the finals of the 2014 and 2015 world championships, denying the Malaysian yet another major title.
Lee will draw huge confidence from fending off Lin, however, having shedded a psychological weight that has hung over him throughout his career. In the last nerve-jangling moments, it seemed Lee was destined to be crushed again as the wily left-hander roared back from the brink to level the decisive set at 20-20.
“My mind, I was thinking I would lose the same as the 2012 (final), (where) I lead and I then lost,” said Lee. “Suddenly it was 20-20. At 20-20, my mind was ‘just try my best, if you lose it’s OK. Just enjoy the match’.”
In a frenzied final rally, Lee stood firm, closing out the fourth match point with a brilliant cross-court volley that dropped sharply and left Lin flat-footed. He slumped to the court in relief before jumping up and punching the air as Malaysian fans screamed in delight.
“I think there was more pressure in my side, right? I’ve never been world number one and been the Olympic champion. I think one more step. This is my good chance,” Chong Wei added.
“I feel really relieved after that because today’s match is over,” third seed Lin told reporters. “It was really close. It’s a bit (of a) pity to end it this way.”
For much of their careers, Lin had been Lee’s bogeyman, having a comprehensive winning record against the 33-year-old Malaysian. Lin was the first Chinese player to complete the ‘badminton grand slam’ -- holding the Olympic Games, world championship and three other global titles at the same time.
The five stars tattooed on Lin’s lower left arm signify that achievement, but if he had hoped to add some more ink-work after Rio, it was not meant to be. “It felt like an Olympic final and not a semi,” he said. “The two of us, who have been around for so long, really played to a high level today, no matter what the result.”
The man known as Super Dan could yet win a third Olympic medal of his career as he will be back on Saturday to face Dane Viktor Axelsen in the bronze medal showdown.