LONDON – On a night when Malaysia needed to see a steady Lee Chong Wei skipping through a first-round opponent on the way to a badminton gold medal, he looked shaky Monday. In a match he was supposed to easily dominate, he struggled.
He mishit shots. He knocked easy returns into the net and smashed others wide.
He looked anything like the man who is finally going to win Malaysia’s first gold medal ever.
And after winning in three sets, he walked slowly off the court at Wembley Arena and into the press zone. He looked tired. He looked surprised. He looked unsure exactly what had happened.
"I tried my best," he said.
But Malaysian coach Tey Seu Bock knew what was wrong. He stood at the opposite end of the press area, looking at the crowd of reporters gathering around Wei and sighed.
"It’s the pressure," Tey said.
Everything of the last two months has become too much for Chong Wei; from the injury to the reported suicide attempt of his father to the demand that he bring the gold that has eluded his country for 56 years.
"The hopes are too high," Tey said. "He has tried to do everything this year. Maybe this is something too much."
"He can not lose, right?" the coach continued. "He can not lose this match. Isn’t that what everyone is saying? He can’t lose. He HAS to win."
Asked about this as he moved through the press area, Chong Wei nodded for a moment then said: "I try."
Asked if he is thinking too hard about the medal, he shook his head.
"I don’t think," he said. "I just try my best."
But Monday’s match was a fight he should not have had. He did not look bothered by the ankle injury from May that left his Olympics in doubt and had him weeping at a news conference. In fact, he moved quite well, leaping several times to smash winners past his Finnish opponent, Ville Lang. He won the first set easily then crumbled in the second.
Easy shots flew into the net. Others fluttered away. Once, he watched a point land right next to his feet. He closed his eyes. He shook his head. Before the third set Tey pulled him aside and made some technical adjustments. Then he told Chong Wei to relax, to stop worrying about the medal he appears to be trying too hard to win.
Asked later about this, Chong Wei shook his head and said he would not reveal what his coach told him.
"I think it’s the pressure," Tey said again. "That’s what I can feel, the pressure."
It wasn’t until late in the third set, locked in an exchange of points with the far inferior Lang that Chong Wei managed to look like himself again. He slammed a barrage of winners past Lang to take the match, though it was certainly not easy.
"I feel today I play not very good," Chong Wei said.
"I did not expect him to play so bad," Tey said.