Facing World No.1 Chen Long, men’s singles reigning champ who operates to the consistency of a wrecking ball knocking down walls unfailingly, can evoke many responses. Usually, a spurt of defiant defense from the challenger draws the applause and wonderment of spectators for the underdog, given the Chinese is currently the best player in the world.
On Sunday, playing his first-ever Super Series final at the SK Handball Stadium in Seoul, India’s World No.32 Ajay Jayaram had a bunch of moments when his tenacious defense — he picked some low shuttles and returned from sharp awkward angles — drew gasps of admiration from the Korean crowd.
It proved the Indian had the answers, if his mind and body could follow up on that instinct for long periods. But the dream week for the Mumbai boy, who trains in Bangalore and who made the biggest final of his career, ended quietly as he went down 21-14, 21-13 in 39 minutes. It’s a good sign that many more Indians are climbing podiums of Super Series, juggling the giant cheque, mascot toy, medals and bouquets as runners up under the international circuit’s dazzling spotlight.
The obvious next step would be the step-up to gold. Though Chen Long, who has seven titles in the last one year, makes the prospect look very difficult. Ajay, coming off an injury-rehab season and playing only his second weekend of a Super Series where bags are not packed up on Fridays, was always going to find it difficult. “He is relentless in his style of play. He can consistently keep going. And to crack him I need to be a little more steady and confident about sticking in with him in long rallies,” Ajay would say later.
Chen Long smashes steep. He doesn’t ever collapse in a puddle of errors. And though he grins often and doesn’t snarl much, there is a menace to his machine-like game that can draw errors from opponents, the mistakes borne out of a mix of nerves and indecision. Ajay who has been error-free the whole week fell to familiar nerves that beset first-time finalists and allowed negatives to accumulate when he hit those unforced errors.
“Normally with opponents who make mistakes it’s a different scenario. But with Chen, it is important that you stay in the match all the time and are composed. If you are under little pressure he will crack down heavily and that’s what happened,” national coach P Gopichand said.
In snappier, shorter rallies, Long’s kills come with mighty force. Opponents can fancy their chances in longer rallies by frustrating the Chinese, and Ajay looked most assured in weaving webs over patient rallies, mixing his attack, surprising with his deceptive defense and using the forecourt and net to keep the giant guessing. At 8-9 with Ajay still attempting to stay toe to toe, the Indian would play the cleverest shots of the day — engaging Long in a net scuffle and then striding back for a wonderful drop shot from mid court. At 13-15, the world champion would make his irritation apparent when the Indian mixed his attack down both flanks — sprinkling in his net gems — in a long rally and forced a net error. But then Long would Hulk out and rain smashes on Ajay immediately whose own booming smash went missing on the day against the big man who opened up the lead to pocket the first.
“I think Ajay played well but just the pure strength of Chen Long in ensuring that he doesn’t make any mistakes and quality of his net and lifts is what made it difficult for Ajay,” Gopichand said. There would be a late spurt of defiance as Ajay would attempt to prolong his stay on the big stage of a Super Series final: there was clarity of a plan in those dying moments between 10-19 and 12-19 in the second, but too little and far too late in the day, to count for much.
The Indian — with the fourth best ranking among his compatriot, but only the second to make it to the finals — said, “I knew it was going to be hard going into the finals. I started off well by mixing my attack from the back and the net. But he got back more shuttles than I expected. So I found it difficult to sustain the pressure. I did have a couple of chances which I felt I couldn’t capitalise on. All credit to Chen Long though. He played a percentage game and didn’t falter much,” he would say later. In the end, the earnest man from Mumbai, would collect his biggest pay cheque, and a pat on the back from the national coach. “It’s been a great week for Ajay and his net and defense looked good. Overall, he went in and played some few very good rallies which showed he is capable of playing at that level. Neither his speed, nor his attack, nor defense, nor net, lacked strength. If anything, it was just the consistency what mattered today,” said Gopichand.
At 28 and always troubled by injuries, Ajay’s feat stands to go unnoticed because there’s many waiting in the wings unless he repeats what he’d done in Korea. Still, heading out for the European swing in October, he could take this confidence forward. “It’s great for his confidence because to come back from injury of last year and the surgery, it’s remarkable he played this level,” Gopichand added. “It augurs well for his future and this confidence will give fear to opponents next few tournaments, so exciting times ahead.”
It remains to be seen if this run also spikes up his confidence to take a long shot at Olympic qualification, ahead of P Kashyap, K Srikanth and HS Prannoy.
“I hope to get a few good weeks of training and do well there. I do have a few areas I need to further improve. Hope to come back stronger,” he says.
Realistically, Ajay ought to target another good week similar to this one, for the experience of this final and glimpses of his fightback, showed glimmers of a Sunday that could end happier than this one. And then one more.