Pressure, a lack of confidence and match rustiness – as well as a fired-up opponent – almost knocked Lee Chong Wei off course in his opening badminton match at the London Olympics on Monday night.
Chong Wei, who has not competed since suffering an ankle injury in May, flirted with a shock first round defeat before rallying to beat world No. 45 Ville Lang 21-8, 14-21, 21-11 and keep his Olympic dream alive.
Despite the close call, the Malaysian said he never feared losing the 47-minute match at the Wembley Arena.
“I am under a lot pressure and that is not something that I can control. It was a poor performance and I admit that I did not play my normal game at all,” he said of his match, which was delayed by nearly 80 minutes as the other matches became drawn out affairs.
“Not once did it cross my mind that I would lose this match. Anyway, it was a good workout for me and I need to iron out certain aspects of my game.
“What is pleasing though is that I was able to get through a three-setter.”
The first game went according to script – the Malaysian piling on the points after a slow start to take it 21-8.
Then came the errors as his usual neat net play deserted him. He also failed to judge the fllight of the shuttle on many occasions, thus costing him crucial points.
Lang sensed something amiss with Chong Wei’s game and went for the kill, taking the second game 21-14.
“My confidence was low and I was afraid to take chances (in the second set). That allowed Lang to attack me and gain the upperhand,” explained Chong Wei.
Just before the rubber game, coach Tey Seu Bok gave Chong Wei a pep talk.
Asked what Seu Bok said to him, Chong Wei replied in jest: “That is between us ... I don’t want to share it with you all.”
The rubber game was close and Chong Wei continued to make mistakes.
The players changed sides with Chong Wei just ahead at 11-10.
Then, all of a sudden, he began playing like the Chong Wei of old – leaping to make smashes, lunging to the front court to retrieve the shuttle and playing with more pace and purpose – to reel away to a 20-10 lead.
He allowed Lang just one more point before wrapping up the tie 21-11.
It was good to see Chong Wei moving around the court uninhibited despite having just recovered from the ankle injury.
But a similar performance against a more experienced player – his next opponent in the last 16 is the talented Indonesian Simon Santoso – could see Chong Wei in trouble.
”I last played against him in the Super Series Finals in December but that was a long time ago. Anyway, past meetings count for nothing in the Olympics,” said Chong Wei.
“Every player will raise his game up a notch and everyone wants to win too.
“I will try my best ... that is all I can promise for now. I want to shut everything else out of my mind and just focus on the next match. It is better that I take it one game at a time. There is still a long way to go.”
The match against Simon is likely to give Chong Wei a better indication of his condition and chances of progressing from a half which also contains former world junior champion Chen Long of China and former world No. 1 Peter-Gade Christensen of Denmark.
Chong Wei, however, can breathe a little easier with the exit of Kenichi Tago, the eighth-seeded Japanese player who reached the All-England Open final two years ago.
Kenichi fell to a surprise loss to Sri Lanka’s Niluka Karunaratne.