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Britain on Thursday came within a hair's breadth of its first ever badminton gold medal, as Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms went down to Jun Zhang and Ling Gao, the hard-hitting Chinese defending champions, in three games.
The newly-minted silver medallists lost 1-15 15-12 12-15 in a pulsating match of wildly fluctuating fortunes, played in front of a frenzied audience at the Goudi Olympic Hall with both pairs well supported.
At 7-3, and again at 11-8, in the deciding game, Robertson and Emms - both 27 - appeared to have their opponents on the run. But the yellow-shirted Chinese pair drew on their experience, slowed the match down and inched their way back into contention, before manoeuvring their way with mounting assurance into a winning position.
“The last few points to win an Olympic gold are going to be the hardest points of your life,” reflected Robertson afterwards. “Unfortunately, the Chinese have experience in this situation. They were a little bit more positive and that was the story of the game really.”
Badminton has a reputation as a country club sport. But there was no shortage of needle in this Europe versus Asia clash, decided over 93 minutes of power, poise and twitching racquets.
It looked a very different story after the first 12 minutes. That was all the time it took for Gao and the left-handed Zhang to breeze through the opening game against opponents who, though serenaded with a chant of “Rule Britannia” on their arrival, looked shell-shocked and thoroughly overwhelmed by the occasion.
Robertson later attributed the woeful start in part to “final nerves. They blew us off the court really. Sometimes it takes a game to get used to the Chinese.”
At this point coach Andy Wood - in appearance a cross between Richard Branson and Rick Wakeman in his Yes days - sprang into action, talking animatedly to his players on the sidelines as if trying to rouse them.
“The Chinese came out all guns blazing,” he said. “It was a case of trying to find a way of combating their speed and pace and power by using intelligence and change of pace.”
The advice did the trick: the British pair steadily worked their way to a 6-1 lead in the second game and held on to win it over a tension filled 35 minutes, although - with scoring only possible in the sport on your own service - it was as if they were running through sand to keep their noses in front. Throughout this period, Emms's work at the net was particularly impressive, but the number two seeds made them fight for every point.
And so that “Rule Britannia” serenade turned out to be premature - but only just. As Robertson said: “Today they were just a couple of points better than us, which isn't a lot. But they deserved it on the day.”
Could they go one better in Beijing in four years' time? It is not out of the question, although Thursday's foot-stomping, banner-waving Chinese support will be as nothing compared to the welcome that would await them there. But the pair will be only 31 for Beijing. As Robertson said: “There is no reason why we cannot be even better.”
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