World number one Lee Chong Wei, who deferred retirement after his narrow Olympic defeat to make further attempts on the major titles, found himself brilliantly denied in the final of the Yonex All England Open.
Lee had hoped to win the title back but instead found himself with a new and younger Chinese rival, Chen Long, who fought off brave fight-backs by the favourite in each game to triumph by 21-17, 21-18.
Last year Lee lost the title to Lin Dan. Now the Chinese legend may have a successor as world number one, on the evidence of Chen’s marvellous containment ability, and increasing patience and judgement on when to make pouncing attacks.
He also carried himself like a champion. He did not panic when the match suddenly became tight, and he handled the pressure like someone capable of going on to more big titles.
“This is very important – a top, world class tournament, and winning it has given me a lot of experience,” the 24-year-old said. “I am very excited about that.”
His performance suggested that it may not be absolutely necessary for Lin may to come out of semi-retirement and defend the world title in Guangzhou in August for China to win it again.
For Lee it was a disappointment. The 30-year-old started both games strangely slowly, going 0-7 down in the first game and 1-6 down in the second. Hard as he tried both deficits proved a little too much to make up.
The light-footed Malaysian moved beautifully as usual, but when he tried to ambush his opponent he could not force his attacks through Chen’s brilliant defence. Nor did not have quite enough energy left in the tank to apply pressure with extra intensity in the rallies.
More often he fell back on defence. He did fight hard though, getting back to 17-19 in the first game and to a brief lead at 15-14 in the second. But Chen’s speed and consistency never slackened or wavered. They also proved decisive.
One rally, which carried Chen Long to 15-7, indicated the extent of his problem, and must have convinced the second seed that he could win. It was the longest of the match, with Chen first attempting to batter his way through with fast flat mid-court attacks and then playing out the varied patterns with impressive patience.
It ended with Lee putting an overhead drop wide. He reduced the eight-point deficit to two, but the feeling remained that Chen had it under control.
He did. Even when Lee pulled back a six-point deficit in the second game and briefly nosed ahead, Chen responded with calm authority.
He forced a smash through Lee’s nimble defence to reach 15-15 and then increased the frequency of his aggression as the favourite flagged just a fraction.
The end came with a smash-kill combination, and Chen kneeling on the court as if in prayer. Lee, so deft and effortless at his best, suddenly looked drained and crestfallen.
“This was my best,” said Lee, “but I admit I made some simple mistakes in the first game. I am upset with myself for that. But Chen played very well.
“I was frustrated that there were certain shots which appeared impossible (to return) but Chen Long defended got to them when I thought I had deserved the point.
“But I won’t be down about it. I will try and try and try, to get back at him.”