Flame roars on in enduring double act

Flame roars on in enduring double act

WE'RE all slaves to Western sport, wearing Liverpool jerseys, and quoting Lebron stats, and arguing Rafa-Fed all night, and genuflecting before F1, but spare a thought for these awesome, old men of Eastern promise.

Doff your hat to these dependable gods, who 10 years after they first collided can still play 52-stroke rallies across 72 seconds. Hail the Malaysian, 31, and the Chinese, 30, with springs in their sneakers, who could string a clothes line across an office hallway and still put on a classic.

One of these days Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan will be gone. Neither will probably return for an Asian Games. Possibly limp their way to the Olympics in 2016. Probably find the other bandaged guy at the other end. And yes, Lin will probably win.

Last night he won again 22-20, 12-21, 21-9. If it's three games against Lee, he usually wins, 13 times out of 17. If it's a major final versus Lee, he almost always wins. Two world championships, two Olympics, now two Asian Games. Even in his dreams, Lee the wondrous must lose to Lin the incredible. If this wasn't sport, it would feel like a vendetta.

They first met so long ago that games were still of 15 points. It was February 2004, a month before two fellows named Nadal and Federer discovered each other on a wider court. Then Lin won and so did Nadal. Now Nadal leads 23-10 and Lin is in front 23-9.

Sport is never tidy, of course. Federer still has more slams than Nadal, but Lee trails Lin in every substantial category. He is a great player playing in the time of the greatest. But who still believes, on the right day, he can be greater.

Certainly yesterday held such promise for Lee began forcefully. He wore stripes, Lin preferred yellow, and both men moved with the effortless economy of padding big cats. Lin stretched like a limbering dancer and Lee hit smashes which had the snap of a headmaster's cane.

This was badminton both expansive and somewhat expensive: in their first six points, they changed shuttles almost every point.

Badminton should knight these men born seven days apart in October for their rivalry has turned them into evangelists for the game. Like Fed-Rafa, even if you aren't a committed fan, you wanted to take a peek at them. Perhaps because all these men seem to be fighting for something more elemental than mere sporting championships.

As the writer Jerry Izenberg said of Ali-Frazier, they were fighting for "the championship of each other".

In the first game, Lin threw his racket after an overrule and was escorted back on court by his coach. Lee just threw away leads. He led 8-4, 11-5, 12-7, 20-16, but if the game was in his hand, then Lin is in his head. Repeated beatings just make an athlete uncertain: Lee hesitated, Lin pounced. He won 22-20 in a game that had the look of a minor masterpiece.

Nobody doubts Lee's valour and he is an experience in endeavour. He won the second game and did so poetically. In the final point, thrice he dived to retrieve shots till Lin had none more to play. One game all, the match was even but only notionally so.

Because Lin knows an ancient secret he can't tell us even if he wanted: he knows how to win. Taking a rest after the 2012 Olympics, he barely played in 2013 with just two events. One was the world championships to which he got a wild card. Of course he won it. Of course he beat Lee.

What makes Lin extraordinary is beyond easy dissection. On a TV show years ago - according to a Chinese blogger - the host read out a letter from a nine-year-old Lin, who had gone away to badminton school, to his mother. Part of it read:

"Mum, every night, I wait and I look to see if you'd come. Mum, I miss you so much."

Separation can breed toughness, create the independent spirit and nourish resilience. Either way, Lin has a hardness to him, even in the way he occasionally leaped for a winning smash and then stared at Lee's coaches. In the third game, he was irresistible and the result inevitable.

A fine match had an awkward conclusion, for in accordance with badminton's lopsided courtesy, Lin turned his back on Lee and went to hug his coaches. Only then did the men meet for a cursory handshake and it was as if winning had come before rival. With these two men especially, it seemed utterly inappropriate.

Lin has a final to play, Lee will return home. People tend to focus on what the Malaysian hasn't won, but he has the respect of his nation for what he has won. It is more than enough. Perhaps it is why on another defeated night only a title was stolen from him but not his rueful smile.

This article was first published on September 29, 2014.
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