BEIJING -- I'm covered now. I mean, in case I'm walking down the street and someone says, "Have you ever been to a high-level badminton match?" I can look 'em right smack in the eyeballs and say, "You kidding me? Of course."
The occasion was Saturday's women's individual gold medal match, an all-China affair featuring defending champion Zhang Ning and current number one-ranked Xie Xingfang.
Zhang Ning is 33 and this was to be her last match. She is part of a crop of almost legendary Chinese badminton players who came of age in the early nineties, and she is the Last Lady Standing. She has battled long and hard, overcoming some early disappointments, and accusations that she couldn't win the Big One, and not winning a major chamoionship until she was 28. As she got better with age, Chinese badminton head coach Li Yongbo she nicknamed her "The Miracle." She injured her knee a year ago and could have hung up her racket, but she decided to give it one more go.
Xie is 27 and at the peak of her game. She is, to be blunt, an absolute knockout (not to suggest that Zhang's face stops clocks, or anything) and she is engaged to marry Li Dan, the number one Chinese male player. Couldn't make this up if I tried.
They have had a fierce rivalry. How much so, you ask? Entering Saturday's match, they had played 22 times and the scoreboard read as follows: Zhang 11, Xie 11.
Zhang won the first set, 21-12. Xie dominated the second set by even more than the 21-10 score indicated. I'd have to say the crowd was pretty evenly divided.
In fact, the joint, didn't start hopping until midway well into the third set, when Xie came back from a 13-7 deficit to make it 13-10. She finally tied the score at 16-16, and now the BJUT Gymnasium was roaring with every point. These great competitors responded by staging some of the longest and best rallies of the day, and Whang made it 19-17 with an unreturnable smash that culminated a lengthy exchange.
Zhang got it to match point when Xie dumped one into the net. Xie won the next point, but Whang's day of destiny reached fulfillment when Xie sent another bird into the next. Whang sank to her knees and began weeping the tears of victory. Her career had ended with another gold medal.
Hey, if you're going to go see some badminton, you might as well see it at its best.