London: Top-seeded Lee Chong Wei returned from a 10-week injury break to scrape into the Olympic badminton last 16 and send a wave of relief through Malaysia late Monday.
His country`s greatest hope for a first Olympic gold medal, Chong Wei beat Ville Lang of Finland 21-8, 14-21, 21-11 in 51 tense minutes.
Chong Wei tore right ankle ligaments at the Thomas Cup in late May and he and his advisers feared the Beijing silver medalist wouldn`t be fit in time for London. But the draw allowed him two extra days to finish off an intense rehabilitation, and he looked like he needed it in an understandably rusty performance.
Meanwhile, his archrival and the defending champion, Lin Dan of China, eased through his opener against Scott Evans of Ireland 21-8, 21-14. Lin`s leading countrywomen, world champion Wang Yihan and No. 2-seeded Wang Xin, were equally unruffled.
The only upsets were inflicted on the No. 8 seeds in both draws. Kenichi Tago, the only Japanese man to reach the All England Open final in the last 45 years, lost to Niluka Karunaratne of Sri Lanka 21-18, 21-16 and Sung Ji-hyun of South Korea lost to Yip Pui Yin of Hong Kong 21-18, 23-21 just a day after her 22nd birthday.
"I don`t feel so happy anymore," Sung said.
Chong Wei didn`t look so good, either, after he ruined a bright start and played with less conviction and more errors in the second game. Lang won it 21-14, the first time he`d won more than 11 points in a game off Chong Wei.
Chong Wei won a morale-boosting 50-stroke rally for 2-2 in the deciding game, and as Lang began to pile up errors, Chong Wei accelerated from 11-11 by winning the last 10 points, finishing with a cross-court smash that Lang didn`t even twitch for.
Lin opened his bid to become the first man to successfully retain the Olympic singles title when he outclassed Evans, conceding nine points less than when he beat Evans en route to winning the world title in the same Wembley Arena last year.
"I`ve been preparing since 2008 so I have put a lot into this. So I am very nervous. But if you want good results, it`s normal to be nervous," Lin said.
Karunarate showed no nerves in dispatching a lackluster Tago, and when it was over he pointed to his father and mentor Louie in the stands and thumped his heart three times.
"This is the biggest win in the history of Sri Lanka badminton," Karunarate said with pride.
It was no surprise to him as he`s in the best form of his life has been since October when he began traveling to qualify for the Olympics at his third attempt. He won his first international title on his father`s birthday in Puerto Rico last November, and picked up more titles in Miami, Wales, Uganda and Iran. His ranking shot up from the 160s to a Sri Lanka-best ever 47.
Tago couldn`t explain what happened to him against Sri Lanka`s flag-bearer from the opening ceremony.
"I am very sorry for my family and my supporters," Tago said. "I need to sort out (in my head) today`s problems." In women`s group action, Wang Yihan opened her first Olympics with a 21-8, 21-16 win over Michele Li of Canada, and Wang Xin beat Rena Wang of the United States 21-8, 21-6.
Also through to the last 16 were No. 4 Saina Nehwal of India and No. 6 Juliane Schenk of Germany.