Baffled and bewildered by the sheer talent displayed, finals day is always intensely inspiring
By Katie Garner
Anyone who knows me will realise that when I do something, I don’t do it by halves. This includes my birthday, where I take celebrating extremely seriously, so single-mindedly in fact that I skip the whole ‘day’ aspect and instead vouch for a fully-fledged month – it’s the only way to do it people. So, to kick start my birthday month of March, I received the best early present ever from my hubby-to-be in the form of tickets to finals day of the Yonex All England Badminton Championships, held at the NIA in Birmingham.
Sunday morning arrived and I couldn’t wait to head to the arena and get settled ready for the big matches of the day. Despite the NIA being cloaked in rather unattractive scaffolding, no one could take the spring out of my step or the smile off my face, especially since the weather was also brilliantly sunny and Katie-temperature friendly. Once suitably weighed down with the glossy predictions programme and my brand spanking new orange Yonex t-shirt (which I promptly changed in to), we nabbed a cappuccino (for me) and a hot dog (for Dan) and went to find our seats. Situated in the lower tier we had a fantastically clear view of the single court proudly ready to go slap bang in the middle of the arena floor. Before the matches kicked off we were treated to some pre-game entertainment in the form of a drumming group that performed at the Olympic opening ceremony as well as a dance act who imaginatively used light up hoola hoops as the basis for their routine.
But enough dilly dallying – this was all about the badminton, and I couldn’t wait to see the professionals bring their best as they attempted to get their hands on the silver wear. As expected, the finalists consisted of many Asian duos, especially the super prominent Chinese who kicked the afternoon off in the women’s doubles as Wang and Yu took on Ma and Tang. What surprised me the most about these games was that the players seemed more eager for the net finish than the power finish, so there were lots of drop shots and clears only occasionally splattered with smashes and drives. There was a definite forward and back dynamic with the mix of net plays and clears, especially combined with an almost reluctance to smash and this meant that the rallies continued on for ages as the pairs were so evenly matched with fantastic rotation skills around each other and the court. However the communication between teammates was not always as seamless as it should have been as on more than one occasion a shot down the centre line caused confusion for pairs playing side tactics. Wang and Yu managed to snitch the win 21-17 / 18-21 / 23-21.
Next up was the men’s doubles, where Indonesia took on Japan. It was in this game that we heard the full force of the Indonesia supporters, who were, quite frankly an uncontrollable orange painted mob wielding inflatable clappers, flags and banners galore. After being deafened after the mere introduction, we knew this was only going to get more ear-ache worthy, however it all adds to the atmosphere! Indonesia were the odds on favourite going in to the game, as from the previous five meetings, Indonesia had won all of the games, as when the game started I could completely see why – they were instantly going for the kill with successions of smashes in a very aggressive and relentless style of play. The games were fast paced with lots of drives that revealed just how passionately both the duos wanted to win, although Japan were the more eager of the two pairs to use the net and indulge in drops. Although Indonesia’s flashy and dynamic style made it look like they were completely dominating, Japan were never far behind points wise so it was never a set in stone result. Despite this, Indonesia clocked up win number six against the Japanese lads with a 21-19 / 21-19 win…much to the impatient pleasure of our fellow audience members.
Back to the women’s in the singles next, seeing Li and Wang of China once again battle for the top spot. These games were quite simply a stunning showcase of elegant and well executed badminton, with both players performing perfect placement. The rallies were fast paced yet varied with lots of changes in directions as well as the mix of lengths that is common in singles tactics to really get your opponents out of place. The net rallies in particular just trickled over the net and yet were still amazing returned to continue the very long rallies that seemed to spread over the entire court, tickling every nook and cranny across every tram line. Wang was particularly inspirational as her movement was phenomenal as she seemed to be able to return anything that was thrown at her; she also had an amazing cross court backhand that could do some serious damage. Her slightly more polished performance earned her the victory in two games with 21-19 and 21-18 against Li, who did appear a bit off her game.
The arena went wild for the next round of matches – the unspoken one we were all waiting for, the men’s singles featuring Malaysian superstar Lee Chong Wei against his Chinese nemesis Chen Long (who looks incredibly tall – just saying). As a repeat of last year’s final, the pressure was on Wei to fend Long off again, although Long undoubtedly wanted to turn the tables. The atmosphere and support for Lee Chong Wei is pure electric – all of us chanting and clapping…much to the chagrin of the passionate Chinese supporter seated next to Dan. With these two guys so experienced in playing each other, it must be tricky to come up with something new to catch them off guard, but throughout the games, the play was tactically smart and constantly manoeuvring each other around. They both ooze a quiet and understated confidence in their abilities that they stretch rather casually for shots, Wei actually walking to return a shot at one point. I don’t think I have ever walked anywhere to return a shot! They are both like tightly coiled springs awaiting the winning opportunity in the rally with their net shots just as potent as the trademark steep smashes, whose inclines would have even a billy goat bleating in alarm. The movement around court was brilliant and seemed just a mere stride in one direction or another, the players really reading the shots well. Singles is fascinating to watch as it is all about deception and catching your opponent out to put them in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smashes were used sparingly but the games were so high class. Mistakes were also rare, as the points were won over inspirational play and well performed shots rather than personal errors, which is always nice. Wei didn’t disappoint, as he won 21-13 / 21-18, leaving the Chinese supporter next to us in disgruntled tears as he stormed out early.
Despite following such an incredibly display of badminton and two extremely well loved players, the last match to play – the mixed doubles – was undoubtedly my favourite of the day. Again, it was a repeat of last year’s final as China took on Indonesia. What I loved about these games was the speed – the shots were so fast and low across the net, especially with the drives, that it really took your breath away as you tried to keep up. The players must have been so focused, alert and on the ball, with reaction speeds you could only dream of. The games were aggressive from the get go – another trait I like about the pacy mixed games – with plenty of attacking front and back play that really showcased the wonderful interceptive play by Indonesia. Although smashes and drives may have been devoid in some of the singles games, it was as if they had all been collected and plonked into this game as it mainly consisted of the powerful, killer shot play. Natsir for Indonesia was brilliant as she is a complete pocket rocket bursting around the court. Indonesia smuggled the win in two games 21-13 and 21-17.
If anyone hasn’t seen badminton live before, I would strongly recommend it, as it is such as inspirational experience. The first thing I wanted to do was grab my racket and go and throttle someone on court (in the nicest way possible of course). The pros have such finesse and style to them that I was often bewildered as to how they could accomplish such beautiful play. Their movements were so in tune and they had such an understanding and awareness of the court that they could cover it easily, whether with a partner or alone. They weren’t showing off or being over dramatic in their play either – it was all about being smart and catching your opponents off guard which also made the games clever and enticing. Badminton wouldn’t be badminton without the display of steep smashes however so we weren’t disappointed in that area either. It really was a fantastic afternoon as we dragged our numb bums out of the NIA at 6pm to drive back to Essex. Stunning badminton that was a joy and education to watch – what more could you ask for?