Paolo Cruz and I didn't have any idea what we would be up against. This is literally our very first tournament as partners, although we've been playing together as a tandem for at least a year. We were put in Level 6, squarely in the middle of the 11-level field of 166 competitors. After signing up, we each got a spiffy white and gray sweat-wicking jersey.
Before each game, we traded our usual lines of pep talk...with respect for two of the greatest badminton players of our time.
"Go, Lin Dan," I call out.
"Go, Taufik," he hollers back.
Things in Level 6 didn't get off to a good start. For the three elimination rounds, only two games will be played per match, so if you lost one the best you could hope for is a draw...and pray you scored higher in the points tally. Our first match was just that---a draw, although technically we won by two points.
We were feeling the pressure of the tournament. I couldn't hit and smash the shuttle as cleanly as I wanted, and Paolo was having trouble moving around because we were always worrying about the score.
Our second match was a lucky break. The pair we squared off with was apparently mis-leveled, because in their words we "massacred" them with straight wins. Paolo and I really think they should have been in Level 8, but we won't argue with a legitimate win.
The third match pushed us both to our bending points. Thrice, the referee made very wrong calls in favor of our competitors. The frustration and disappointment were obvious on Paolo's face, while I got incensed enough to throw my racket into a flat-spin after the bad calls and a particularly bad play. We almost lost that win for a draw, considering our opponents weren't really as good as the first pair of the day. We ended the elimination round with two wins and a draw, which meant we were in the semifinals.
We finally found our groove in the semifinal game. This time, it was two out of three games to a match, which is how we normally play. Our opponents were much older, but they were quite good. I was enjoying myself so much it took me a while to realize I was chasing shots I should have been ignoring. They were traveling too long and already outside the court. A hard-fought victory was ours in two straight games. Already Paolo was elated with the thought of reaching the finals.
Just as we were about to watch the higher-level players in the semifinals, we were called for our final game. The same friendly referree from the semifinals was calling the game as fairly as he knew how, and it was reassuring to see none of the third-game fiascoes would rear their ugly heads.
Our opponents this time were very good, and technically they had a larger arsenal of moves. Twice, Paolo and I were caught out by a cleanly played cross-court net shot, in near-identical fashion. Unfortunately, my defensive clears and smashes, paired with Paolo's agile feet and scathing kills, were more consistent. I even managed to spring surprise responses to their serves. Not even my Adidas Samba Millenniums getting doubled-up soles in mid-game stopped us from taking the hard-fought victory.
We hugged each other in exhilaration. So this is how winning feels like. We are CHAMPIONS!
We arrived as wide-eyed tourney newbies. We went home as Level 6 champions. And I really could not have done it without Paolo.
He busted his ass out there by chasing the shuttle as diligently as he could, while I mostly remained at the back court for defense and an occasional attack. He has a wider range of shots than I do, too---I'd be in hot water if I tried any of his net play so I'm content with power shots.
We talked about joining future Accenture Badminton Club tournaments, notably the ABC Cup this December. By then we'd have to improve our game---more so for me than for him. But as early as now, I'm sure we won't have any problems working with each other.
We're best partners.
Thanks, Lin Dan.