Chinese stranglehold broken

Xie Xingfang... a splendid victory over compatriot Zhang Ning.-AP

TAUFIK HIDAYAT did a great service to badminton the other day at the Arrowhead Pond Arena in Anaheim in the US. The 24-year old Indonesian, the Athens Olympics gold medal winner, broke the stranglehold that China seemed to have on the sport by winning the World championship title. In many ways this was a significant setback to China's fortunes, for, not long ago in the All-England championship, badminton and China seemed synonymous.

The sport cried for variety, a kind of swing in fortunes to give it a competitive look. Indonesia indeed had the credentials to challenge for the honours. Until the early 80s anything that a champion from Indonesia touched usually turned to gold. That was the golden period of Indonesian badminton, before China took giant strides.

Taufik had given enough hints of his capabilities by winning the title at the Athens Olympics after taking the crown at the Asian Games in Busan. By capturing his first World Championship after dismantling the Chinese, Lin Dan, the World number one and pre-tournament favourite, Hidayat became the first man to hold the Olympic and the World titles at the same time.

A moment that Hidayat will freeze in memory is his arching overhead smash that left Lin rooted to the spot. A dream realised, history made, the Indonesian sank to his knees and cupped his face in a show of uninhibited emotion.

Ranked world number six, Hidayat, a five-time Indonesian Open winner, was merciless on Lin as he captured the first 13 straight points of the men's singles final en route to a 15-3, 15-7 victory in 36 minutes.

In the semi-final, too, against Malaysian Chong Wei Lee, the Indonesian proved a smooth operator, bringing about a swift finish. On the other hand, Lin waged a virtual battle of attrition against Peter Gade in the semi-finals. The 97-minute match sapped both the players before the Chinese, ever the flexible and sharper in interceptions, wrapped it in his favour.

This is Hidayat's third career win over Lin in their flowering rivalry and the second in weeks after demolishing him in the semifinal of the Singapore Open. "I am very fortunate and grateful," Hidayat said. "All of my targets of winning the prestigious tournaments have been achieved. Not everybody gets an Olympic as well as a World Championship. This proves I am one of the best in men's singles," the Indonesian said.

The Indonesian domination continued on the final day when the country's shuttlers also took gold in mixed doubles — Nova Widianto and Lilyana Natsir defeating China's Xie Zhongbo and Zhang Yawen 13-15, 15-8, 15-2.

The Chinese had a nightmarish finish to the championship. Pre-tournament favourites in three events and fittingly seeded number one in each of them, the Chinese picked up just one gold on the final day when Xie Xingfang beat defending World and Olympic champion Zhang Ning 11-8, 9-11, 11-3 in an all-Chinese women's singles final.

Poor Lin can blame the jinx that top seeds have traditionally faced in the World championship. Only two top seeds had gone on to win the title since 1977. "I had a bad start and nothing more," summed up Lin on the black day, but also blamed the draft from the air conditioning in the arena. "I will be back next year to win the title," the top Chinese said with all the confidence that has made his country's shuttlers the most dreaded opponents.

Nonetheless, it was a shocking loss for Lin, who has held the world number one ranking since March 2004. Lin was seeking a double win with his girlfriend Xie who captured her first World title and became the 10th women's champion from China over the twelve editions of the World championships.

"I congratulated my girlfriend Xie when she won the title. I am happy for her," Lin said after his defeat. Xie, 24, and Zhang, 30, have met five times in the last nine months with Xie winning four times. Zhang is a veteran in the Chinese women's team and said it was heart-warming to see younger players like Xie reaching the top of the sport. "I enjoy seeing the future Olympians and world champions coming up," Zhang said. Xie said winning in Anaheim will give her more confidence as she looks forward to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "Every game for me now is preparation for the Olympics," Xie said.

In men's doubles, Tony Gunawan and Howard Bach of the United States upset former world champions Chandra Wijaya and Sigit Budiarto of Indonesia. The 13th seeded Americans stunned the second-seeded Indonesians 15-11, 10-15, 15-11 in 68 minutes. It is the first ever medal at a world championship for the United States and the second gold for Gunawan, who won in 2001 while competing for Indonesia. He is one of those rare shuttlers to have won gold medals with two different countries.

In mixed doubles, the fourth-seeded Widianto and Natsir had to come from behind to beat their 11th-seeded Chinese opponents in an 80-minute final. It was the first gold medal for Indonesia in mixed doubles in 25 years.

For India there was little to savour. Apart from the fact that there was little chance for the country's shuttlers to make a mark, even the selection of players drew flak in the media. In particular, the non-inclusion of the experienced Abhinn Shyam Gupta, who lost his berth to national champion Arvind Bhatt. Expectedly, the results panned out on familiar lines. Ranked No. 27 in the world and national champion, Aparna Popat, went out in the second round to unfancied Rebecca Bellingam of New Zealand 11-9, 8-11, 9-11 after ousting the 10th-seed Petya Nedeltcheva of Bulgaria in the first round.

Rupesh Kumar and Thomas Sanave, after a first round bye, went out in the second round to Chandra Wijaya and Sigit Budiarto of Indonesia 11-15, 11-15, while Bhatt slipped out in the first round itself to Athens Olympic bronze medallist and 11th-seeded Boonsak Ponsana of Thailand in straight games. — A Special Correspondent