Denmark’s plucky band of warriors are one step away from doing what none of their predecessors have done in 67 years.
The depleted Danish squad, without some of their top stars, nevertheless fought back from the brink in an emotion-charged semi-final at the TOTAL BWF Thomas & Uber Cup Finals 2016 last evening.
Meanwhile, Uber Cup joint-favourites Japan crashed out without much of a fight against Korea, who will be bidding for only their second title when they take on China today.
The vagaries of team play were in full evidence in the Denmark-Malaysia semi-final clash. Denmark were without the services of Jan O Jorgensen and Mads Pieler Kolding due to injury. Malaysia went 2-0 ahead, thanks to Lee Chong Wei and Goh V Shem/Tan Wee Kiong. Denmark then staged its great rearguard action through Hans-Kristian Vittinghus.
Both Vittinghus (featured image) and his opponent Iskandar Zulkarnain had momentum going into the match after memorable wins in the quarter-finals. Iskandar got off to a blistering start, raining winners on the Dane, until Vittinghus shifted gears and displayed some outstanding defensive badminton, throwing himself all around the court and negating the Malaysian’s biggest shots. The Denmark squad in the gallery, led by Jan O Jorgensen and Mathias Christiansen, began to get the crowd behind Vittinghus, whipping up a “Denmark, Chai-O” chant that gave them wings on the night. The pattern shifted and Zulkarnain, despite giving it all he had, found that wasn’t enough against Vittinghus who barely played a wrong shot on the day: 21-18 21-18.
“I felt a lot more pressure today than yesterday,” said Vittinghus. “I had a nightmare start, but I’m extremely proud of the way I handled it. I had a good understanding of how he played as I’d watched him on TV and video. I felt the momentum was on Malaysia’s side and he came out fighting. I felt unbelievable relief when I got the final point. It was amazing that the crowd was behind me with their chant.”
Malaysia still had the edge, and when Koo Kien Keat/Tan Boon Heong took the opening game over Kim Astrup/Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, Danish hearts must have felt aflutter. Once again the Danes lifted themselves, returning the best smashes Tan and Koo could fire their way. Astrup in particular had a glorious match, imposing himself in the rallies and powering the Danes on to victory: 10-21 21-8 21-13.
“The crowd was with us and that was an important factor in our win. It feels like we’re playing in Denmark!” said Rasmussen.
Chong Wei Feng was the hero of Malaysia’s last Thomas Cup campaign. His experience was expected to count against Emil Holst, but it was the youthful exuberance of Holst that prevailed on the day. Like his teammates before him, Holst stayed strong and executed his task to perfection, even as Chong wilted in the conditions. There were a few tense moments towards the end for Denmark, but nothing could stop Holst from ensuring a date for his team in the final: 21-15 21-18.
“It was unbelievable,” said Holst. “That’s what Thomas Cup is about. This isn’t the best match I’ve played, but it’s certainly the most important. I’m so proud to be part of this Danish team.”
In the women’s team championships, Japan, who were expected to be a threat to China for the title, were inexplicably below par as they went down in the fourth match. The biggest blows to Japan were the capitulation of Nozomi Okuhara to Sung Ji Hyun (21-13 21-13) and Misaki Matsutomo/Ayaka Takahashi to Jung Kyung Eun/Shin Seung Chan. Even Kurumi Yonao/Naoko Fukuman, who recently had set a world record for featuring in the longest-ever match, couldn’t quite stretch Chang Ye Na/Lee So Hee (21-15 21-14). The only point for Japan came when Bae Yeon Ju retired due to injury while playing Akane Yamaguchi in the second singles.
“I couldn’t carry out what I set out to do,” rued Okuhara, who has been below par after her All England victory in March. “I slipped a couple of times in the first game and that scared me because I’ve had surgery on both my knees – one a year after I won the World Junior Championships, and the other a year after that. This year, during the All England, I hurt my right knee. So today although the knee didn’t hurt, I was worried about it and didn’t want to put any stress on it. That affected my movement.”
A delighted Jung Kyung Eun said they had prepared for a long match against Matsutomo/Takahashi. “The loss of the men (in the quarter-finals) did not bother us as we were focussed on our task. We won’t be intimidated in the final.”