An unseeded Malaysian creates history

THE Yonex All England Open Championship, the annual badminton feast at Birmingham's national indoor arena, has been witnessing a new men's champion for the last six years. It was no different this year with reigning champion, Chen Hong of China falling to an exciting new talent, Muhammad Hafiz Hashim, in the final. In the process it was a historic moment for Malaysian badminton.

THE Yonex All England Open Championship, the annual badminton feast at Birmingham's national indoor arena, has been witnessing a new men's champion for the last six years. It was no different this year with reigning champion, Chen Hong of China falling to an exciting new talent, Muhammad Hafiz Hashim, in the final. In the process it was a historic moment for Malaysian badminton.

Muhammad Hafiz Hashim with the coveted All-England badminton trophy . — Pic. AFP-

The crowning moment made this 20-year-old, whose fame till then was the Manchester Commonwealth Games title win, achieved last August, the first Malaysian to win the prestigious event in 37 years. Like him, Tan Aik Huang was a twenty-year-old when he won the title beating a Japanese H. Akiyama in the 1966 final. Prior to that Punch Gunalan (1974), Misbun Sidek (1986), Foo Kok Keong (1991), Rashid Sidek (1996) and Ong Ewe Hock (1998) had all failed at the final hurdle. What was more significant about Hafiz's achievement was that he was an unseeded player. Only Ib Frederiksen from Denmark had this distinction earlier in 1988.

Like the men's section, there was a new champion on the women's side as well with the Chinese regaining control after the reigning champion Camilla Martin of Denmark, though still seeded seventh, failed at the pre-quarterfinal stage. Last year she had beaten four Chinese players en route to the title. But this time it was a Chinese girl, Pi Hongyan, representing France though, who ended her run in a rather tame way at 11-5, 11-8. Ironically Pi had regularly been losing to Camilla but this time, as the blond Dane conceded, "she really wanted to win".

With four Chinese in the semi-finals it was known before hand to which country the women's trophy was heading, what remained to be seen was who would carry it. The honour went to fourth seeded Zhou Mi, who beat compatriot sixth seed Xie Xingfang in the final. Interestingly the two who failed were favourite and top seed Gong Ruina, the current World Champion and second seed Zhang Ning. Gong's fall was the championship's biggest upset in the women's section. She fell to Xie while Mi ousted Ning, both in the semifinals. The Chinese domination however was complete on the women's side with the doubles too witnessing a tussle between the pairs of their own country. In addition was the gain in the mixed doubles event.

But then for sheer skills backed by a strong will, nothing matched the extraordinary performance of the Malaysian youngman, Hafiz, who proved to be the biggest draw in this year's championship. His success lay in his efficiency to finish off mid-court rallies and control of the bird at the net. This to a large extent undid the otherwise spectacular Hong, whose airborne attacks can be a treat to watch. It needed the Malaysian 53 minutes to complete the demolition.

It was not as though Hafiz had a measure of Hong throughout. In fact at 4-10 down in the first game, none expected Hafiz to come on top but the Malaysian did remarkable things to show an admirable defence and clawed back. Using his height and reach Hafiz came up with some telling smashes to grab the first game on extra points. That surrender of initiative pushed Hong to the defensive in the second where Hafiz led 11-6 and then 14-8 but there the prospects of a win brought butterflies in the Malaysian's stomach and a momentary slip. However Hong could advance by only two more points before Hafiz threw up his racket in absolute delight on achieving the landmark.

The victory over Hong had an added significance for Hafiz, a sort of revenge. The Chinese World number one had shown the exit to Hafiz's elder brother Roslin Hashim in the semi-finals and in the process denied what would have been another historic occasion of two brothers in the title-round. Worse for Roslin, he aggravated his old tennis elbow injury by overstretching himself against Hong.

Surprisingly Hafiz was unseeded here and the reason given was that the Commonwealth Games triumph does not count for ranking points. Ranked 46th before the All-England Championship, the fresh win should gain him a near 26-rung jump. So much for his personal highs but in the overall picture, Hafiz has once again put Malaysia into the forefront and out of the shadow of China, Indonesia and perhaps South Korea. In fact the country has already begun to visualise the return to the golden era of eighties and nineties when the Sidek brothers had kept the Malaysian flag flying.

By a curious coincidence, one of the Sidek brothers — Misbun — was around when Hafiz was savouring the joyous moment of his career. Misbun was the one who spotted and nurtured Hafiz and what a birthday gift his ward was to give him! In 1986 when the event was held in the Wembley indoor arena, Sidek had lost to Denmark's Morten Frost in the final. Ten years later, Misbun's brother Rashid too was to lose to a Dane (Erik Hoyer-Larsen) in the title clash. Considering that Hafiz has done one better than the master this should create a few new power equations in world badminton.

What Hafiz achieved seemed to be a spectacular extension of a Malaysian renaissance this time with four players in the men's quarterfinals, an unprecedented moment in the country's badminton history. Apart from the Hashim brothers, Lee Tsuen Seng and Yong Yock Kin were there. Interestingly Lee faced Indonesia's Marleve Mainaky and beat him through sheer accuracy more than the power of his smashes while Hafiz made short work of compatriot Yong. But it was in the semifinal that Hafiz's golden dream took birth when he got past the Chinese Chen Yu. That 15-12, 15-12 win carved out with the Malaysian's typical efficiency in killing the rallies seemed a dress rehearsal for the final where he faced another Chinese, the top seed Chen Hong.

The field this year was impressive with reigning champion 23-year old Chen Hong heading the seedings with an imposing performance in 2002 that also included triumphs in the Singapore and Denmark Opens though he missed the crown in his home soil in the China Open, thanks to Wong Choong Hann, who was seeded second here. Former champion Xia Xuanze, Denmark's Kenneth Jonassen, Asian silver medallist Taufik Hidayat, Thai Open winner Ronald Susilo of Singapore were others in the fray. Then in the women's section, Camilla Martin was ready to defend her title but the Chinese challenge in the form of Gong Ruina, Zhang Ning, Zhou Mi and Xie Xingfang continued to haunt her.

However what the championship witnessed on the opening day itself was carnage with eight seeded players falling by the wayside. The victims included Hidayat, Susilo and Wong Choong Hang. Indonesian Hidayat fell to the Dutch champion, Dicky Palyama in the first round itself as did Susilo to Portugal's Marco Vasconcelos while Wong, on whom the Malaysians had pinned much hope fell to compatriot Yong Hock Kin. Another big name to get eliminated was Peter Gade, the Danish National champion and the 1999 All England winner, who found the former World junior champion Bao Chuni too big a hurdle, falling in three well contested games 9-15, 15-13, 15-11, that went a full one hour distance. The second day's big upset was of course the exit of Camilla Martin.

As for India, which was in focus two years ago after Pullela Gopi Chand became the champion, this time there was hardly a passing mention. The reason was not far to seek. Gopi himself was not there, injuries keeping him out while all others made quiet exits on the first day itself. National champions Abhinn Shyam Gupta and Aparna Popat lost to more fancied opponents as did Chetan Anand and Nikhil Kanetkar. Gupta went down to 16th seed Shon Seung-Mo of Korea 5-15, 5-15 while Kanetkar despite grabbing a game went down to Japan's Hidetaka Yamada (15th seed) 8-15, 15-7, 6-15. Chetan Anand lost to China's Wu Yunyong 9-15, 6-15 while Popat put up a spirited display before bowing to the Dutch Judit Meulendiiks 4-11, 11-8, 10-13.

The results (all final): Men: singles: Hafiz Hashim (Mal) bt Chen Hong (China) 17-14, 15-10; doubles: Sigit Budiarto/Candra Wijaya (Indo) bt Lee Dong-soo/Yoo Yong-sung (S. Korea) 15-7, 15-5.

Women: singles: Zhou Mi (China) bt Xie Xingfang (China) 11-6, 11-5; doubles: Gao Ling/Huang Sui (China) bt Yang Wei/Zhang Jiewen (China) 11-9, 11-7; Mixed doubles: Zhang Jun/Gao Ling (China) bt Chen Qiqiu/Zhao Tingting (China) 11-6, 11-7.