Fri, September 20, 2013

After reprieve, Canada's doubles team smashed by Russia

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Canada's Alex Bruce (front) returns a shot as teammate Michele Li looks on during their women's doubles badminton bronze medal match against Russia's Valeria Sorokina and Nina Vislova at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Wembley Arena August 4, 2012. (REUTERS)


LONDON - As Canadian badminton players Michele Li and Alex Bruce talked to the media on Saturday morning, one of their Russian opponents, Nina Vislova, sauntered behind typing on her smart phone and then walked straight into a sign pole, striking her head.

One of the very few mistakes either Vislova and her partner Valeria Sorokina made on the day.

The fairy tale that has been the Canadian mixed women's doubles team at these Olympics came to a quick and painful ending as Vislova and Sorokina dispatched Li and Bruce in straight sets, 21-9, 21-10, to win the Olympic bronze medal.

"It was pretty disappointing and we didn't preform like we wanted to," Li, a pre-med student at the University of Toronto said afterwards. "We went in with the support, the confidence, but I guess we couldn't take the pressure. They're a much faster team and today we just weren't ready."

Li and Bruce did seem to play like they had stars in their eyes. Ranked 28th in the world, they were overmatched by the professional pair from Russia -- a team they had lost to in straight sets earlier in the tournament. Still, Saturday's loss was one of the very few low points for the Cinderella Canadian team. Both would admit that they never expected to be playing for a medal at the Olympics and, to be fair, were only in the bronze-medal match as a result the match fixing scandal that marred the event last week, resulting in the disqualification of teams from China, Indonesia and Korea. The Canadians were eliminated, were getting on with their lives as London tourists, only to be brought back suddenly after the scandal hit.

But to their credit, the two Toronto girls -- who became huge media darlings back home in Canada and the badminton venue -- certainly put up a fight upon their return, defeating a team from Australia and winning a set off the highly ranked Japanese team.

"It's definitely been the craziest roller coaster," said Li, 20. "We started off low and then when we went to our high it was the best point of our lives. Today was kind of our low. It's just been crazy, all the emotion and stuff. Definitely this tournament has taught me to learn to control it."

Their unlikely appearance in the later rounds and their underdog status also established the team as crowd favorites at Wembley Arena.

Throughout every match, the crowd periodically chanted "Bruce-Li" "Bruce-Li" (Bruce Lee) and the majority of the cheers were in their favour (although venue officials may have gone over the line playing the Kung Fu Fighting song when the Canadians were walking off the court during a break).

The attention become so intense after their return to the competition that Bruce went on a self-imposed media blackout on Friday, not going on the internet or answering emails. All the duo did the night before the biggest match of their lives was play a Monopoly card game and then go to bed.

"It really was surreal," said Bruce of the experience. "I don't know even think it's really sunk in yet for me."

Coach Ram Nayyar said his team did learn a lot from the week and expects both players to become better players as a result of the experience.

"I think the moral of the story is they played so many teams that are -- they're No.28 in the world -- more established or better and stronger, and they beat the ones that they should have beat, and they played so well against the well they shouldn't have beat. So it's important to look at it that way and I think they were able to raise the level of their game. "

Unfortunately, the London Olympics could turn to be the swan song, as a doubles team, for Li and Bruce. Both are heading back to their university pursuits, with Bruce, 22, returning to Western University in London to study engineering. With a two-hour driving distance between them, there are no guarantees that they'll continue to train and compete together.

"I think we're just going to play it by ear depending on our schedules," said Bruce. "We had such a great experience playing with each other for five years and she's been such an amazing partner and we get along so well on and off the court."

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

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