Looking for Lin and Lee

As two of badminton’s greatest players near the end of their careers, the field is open, and India’s men can make a mark


Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia. Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters
Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia. Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

On the day before Srikanth Kidambi’s badminton quarter-final match at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Indian sports fans were toyed with by a video that rushed about on social media. On our screens was Kidambi’s impending opponent, Lin Dan, the two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion from China, a man almost universally held as the greatest badminton player of all time.

The video showed Lin lobbing the shuttlecock across the net from the centre of the court, then sprinting to a chair placed at courtside, putting his racket down, picking up a new one and returning to the centre of the court to play the next shot.

Watching Lin change his racket during a point threw us into confusion. We felt fear and nerves for our boy (how was he supposed to play a superhero?), defiance (we invented the zero, we could take on racket switchers), but also awe, excitement.

When Lin stepped on to the real court in Rio, Kidambi across from him, a ferocious battle ensued. As much as we wanted to cheer on Kidambi, it was impossible to ignore the power and elegance of Lin’s play.

In the semi-finals, Lin played Lee Chong Wei, to continue one of the most riveting sports rivalries of the past decade. “They are like the Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal of badminton,” explains former badminton player Sanjay Sharma.

Lin Dan of China during their semi-final match at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters
Lin Dan of China during their semi-final match at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

But that is perhaps an understatement, for while tennis was already a globally popular sport by the 2000s, badminton’s status, in South-East Asia at least, has received a massive fillip thanks to Lin and Lee. The latter is the most popular athlete in Malaysia, where badminton is the national sport. And Lin has been a symbol of not just excellence but rebellion in China, his five tattoos a defiance of the idea of the state-bred machine athlete.

Lee holds the record for the longest reign as world No.1, but every time a major tournament rolls around, Lin has triumphed. He has beaten Lee 25 times out of 37, including twice each at Olympic finals, World Championship finals and All England Open finals. Lee has never let the lopsidedness of the rivalry dent his endeavour. A life awash in silver has not stopped him from plugging on. Even after a doping scandal kept him out of the sport for nearly a year in 2014-15, he returned, working his way up from smaller tournaments to the major ones, to reclaim the No.1 ranking.

All the time, his eyes were set on overcoming his nemesis, and his close friend, Lin. It is perhaps indicative of just how intense their duel has been that when Lee finally beat Lin in an Olympics, in the semi-finals at Rio 2016, both looked emotionally drained for their next matches and lost them to younger opponents.

After that one last big match, we must prepare to say goodbye to the pair. Lin has been deflecting questions about retirement, but few think he will carry on for long. Lee may play on till the next World Championships, as he has never won one, but at 33, every match is felt more in the muscles and bones than before.

So now begins the wait, longing to know about the next great rivalry. India’s rising badminton stars—Kidambi included—are poised at the start of exciting times.

India’s Srikanth Kidambi. Photo: Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia. Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters
India’s Srikanth Kidambi. Photo: Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia. Photo: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

“For the past two-three years, Chen Long (from China) has been in the same league as Lin and Lee,” says Ajay Jayaram, the world No. 21 from India. He (barring Lin and Lee) is a cut above the rest of the field.” Jayaram has played, and lost, to Chen four times and has found him harder to play than Lin or Lee. “He has the best retrieving powers in the game right now, and he’s so steady on his feet, it’s almost impossible to throw him off balance.”

So Chen, the current world and Olympic champion, emerges as the most likely successor to Lin. But below the peak on which he stands, there is a level playing field, with plenty of Indians in the race.

“Among the next 20 players, it’s a matter of who plays better on the day,” Jayaram says. He is one of five Indian players currently in the top 40—Kidambi, H.S. Prannoy, B. Sai Praneeth and Sameer Verma are the others.

“All of them have a chance to win major tournaments,” says Vimal Kumar, former player and current coach of Saina Nehwal. “The men’s field is that open.”

The head-to-head records of the top 20 players support this statement. If you look at the draw for the forthcoming Japan Open, which begins on 20 September, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether the Indian players would fall off it in the first round or the final. Some of them have unfavourable head-to-head records against likely second-round opponents, but winning ones against the top-seeded players.

The Japan Open is one of two Super Series tournaments this month—the Korea Open begins on 27 September—and the Denmark Open, one of the five Super Series Premier tournaments, begins in October. These three tournaments will offer key clues as to who is ready to emerge as a challenger to Chen.

What makes the hunt interesting is that in badminton, unlike tennis, players from a country operate in packs, often sharing the same coach and training centre and following an overall plan plotted by their sports ministry. When talking to former and current players about what the game holds in the post-Lin-Lee era, the conversation revolves around the rise and fall of nations. “China’s dominance is over, as the world has caught up,” Sharma says. “Japan have announced themselves by winning the Thomas Cup two years ago. The Danes have had some success, with (Viktor) Axelsen and (Jan Ø.) Jørgensen doing well.” Kumar is happy that two Indonesian players—Tommy Sugiarto and Ihsan Maulana Mustofa—are in the top 20, as that country struggled to produce talent after the retirement of Taufik Hidayat in 2014.

Kidambi is India’s great hope. It is believed that with a little consistency, he can be Chen’s main rival. “People tend to underestimate him because he is not dependable. But he has got spark and can beat anyone on his day,” says Sharma. Many see similarities between Kidambi and his coach, Pullela Gopi Chand. Kidambi, just 23, has an attacking style and is able to generate both power and intelligent angles with his smashes. Praneeth, Prannoy and Verma are all younger than 25 too and are still improving their games, while Jayaram, 28, has the attacking game to compete with top-ranked players and is now determined to work on his retrieving skills and consistency.

With Olympic medallists P.V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal already making great strides for India in women’s badminton, Lin and Lee’s impending departures may open the door for India in the men’s game.

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