National top singles ace Lee Zii Jia produced a scintillating performance en route to clinching his maiden All England Badminton Championships men’s singles title with a pulsating 30-29, 20-22, 21-9 win over Viktor Axelsen of Denmark in Birmingham yesterday.
Zii Jia was in his element in a closely-fought first game as he used his powerful cross-court smashes to take an 11-10 lead at the interval.
Both players then fought neck-and-neck until the game was halted due to Axelsen’s bloodied knee when the game was tied at 20-20. That, however, did not stop Axelsen from putting up a good fight, although Zii Jia stayed calm, cool and composed to edge out the battling Dane 30-29.
The second game saw Axelsen taking charge to lead 14-11 before Zii Jia found his rhythm to win seven straight points to go 18-14 ahead. But that was just the wake-up call the defending champion needed as he struck back to win 22-20 and set up a mouth-watering rubber game.
Zii Jia was a transformed player in the third game as he stepped on the gas to take a commanding 11-5 lead at the interval. With the Dane fast wilting, the Malaysian never took his foot off the pedal and when Axelsen sent a backhand return out wide on match point, Zii Jia let out a scream of joy to seal victory after a thrilling 74-minute battle at the Utilita Arena.
This was only his second victory in five meetings against Axelsen, who was competing in his third consecutive final in the tournament.
And what a win it was for the 22-year-old Zii Jia, who lost to the Dane in the semi-final of this tournament last year.
Zii Jia is the first Malaysian shuttler to emerge champion in the world’s oldest badminton tournament since 2017, when Datuk Lee Chong Wei overpowered Shi Yu Qi of China 21-12, 21-10.
The Alor Setar lad joined the likes of Wong Peng Soon, Eddie Choong, Tan Aik Huang and Hafiz Hashim to win the All England title.
He also ended his own nearly three-year title drought, having won the Chinese Taipei Open in 2018 when he beat Riichi Takeshita of Japan, 21-17, 16-21, 21-11.
In the semi-finals yesterday, Zii Jia was in majestic form as he swept aside Mark Caljouw of the Netherlands 21-13, 21-17 in 44 minutes, while Axelsen bounced back from a first-game loss to tame compatriot Anders Antonsen 16-21, 21-7, 21-17.
The All England title will surely be a major boost to Zii Jia’s confidence, especially after a string of below-par performances heading to Birmingham, with the latest one being the 18-21, 10-21 semi-final capitulation to eighth seed Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand at the 2021 Swiss Open earlier this month.
Meanwhile, an elated Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican was quick to congratulate the national badminton squad for their impressive outing at the All England.
“I could feel all Malaysians rooting for Zii Jia and celebrating this sweet taste of victory. It was a superb and masterclass performance by Lee Zii Jia,” he said in a Facebook post last night.
Chong Wei has tipped Zii Jia to be a medal contender at the Olympics if he reproduces his All England form in Tokyo four months from now.