Badminton's greatest rivalry meets its inevitable end as Lin Dan follows Lee Chong Wei into retirement
Lin Dan, known for his ability to suddenly up the ante in the middle of a match, won two Olympics gold medals, won the World Championships five times and the prestigious All-England crown on six occasions
He has often been referred to as the Roger Federer of badminton – like his great Swiss contemporary in tennis, he is the greatest player in the history of the shuttle sport, and one of the most durable.
Still, Old Father Time is no respecter of reputations; and retirement had become almost inevitable, seeing as Chinese badminton legend Lin Dan was far advanced into the twilight of his career, and that he was finding it difficult to keep pace with the far younger and speedier legs that more than made up for any deficiency in the talent department. The absence of international competition since the Coronavirus pandemic hit the world in mid-March, and the postponement by a year of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, eventually took the decision out of his hands.
On the morning of Saturday, 4 July, Super Dan tacitly conceded that his almost obdurate quest for a third Olympic gold medal had become a bridge too far; and that, at three months shy of his 37th birthday, the time had come for him to take leave of the badminton courts on which he had spent the last two decades of his life on the roster of the Chinese national team.
“From 2000 to 2020, it's been twenty years since I joined the Chinese national team. Now, I am saying good-bye,” the two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion announced.
“I was really excited and proud when I was called up to join the national badminton team when I was still a 16-year-old; and I must thank my family, coaches, teammates and fans for accompanying me through the ups and supporting me through the downs.
“Every jump smash I hit was in my eagerness for victory,” Lin added, in his goodbye note on his social media account on Weibo. “I have never considered hanging up the racket during my professional career which spanned four Olympics. I have devoted everything to the sport I love.”
An illustrious career lasting two long decades, of which more than half the number of years were spent jockeying with his greatest rival, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia – who was almost exactly a year older, and who retired in June 2019, almost exactly a year ago – for the top spot in the rankings, provides mute testimony to the man’s longevity.
Lin’s wonderful courtcraft and deception, unflappable temperament and unyielding spirit on the court set him apart from the others as the man to beat for the biggest titles in the sport. Among other reasons for his dominance in the badminton arena – undisputed talent, mental toughness, stamina, consistency, discipline, diligence, intelligence and great training attitude.
“I always reminded myself to persist during the tough moments, and I had hoped I could have extended my career even longer,” he wrote, in his farewell note. “Instead of purely pursuing the rankings, as I did when I was young, I wanted to challenge my physical extreme in recent years. But now, my physical capabilities, injuries and pain won’t allow me to fight alongside my teammates any more. In the days ahead, I wish to spend more time with my family and seek the next arena in my life.”
Over the past couple of years, it had become apparent to keen followers of the game that Lin’s powers were on the wane; and, try as he might, he no longer had that unbeatable aura that had characterised his halcyon years. He would still produce the odd jaw-dropping performance, but his body would give up on him in subsequent rounds, and he no longer had the ability to play five tough matches on successive days, to win a title.
Lin won the badminton men’s singles gold at home in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and defended his title successfully at the 2012 London Olympics. He came within two points of reaching a third successive Olympic final at Rio in 2016, but bowed out in the penultimate reckoning, in the face of the desperate hunger of his greatest rival, Lee, at 20-22 in the deciding game of their memorable battle-royale.
The Chinese left-hander, known for his ability to suddenly up the ante in the middle of a match, and play three to four points at a blinding pace, won the World Championships five times, the prestigious All-England crown on six occasions, and also helped his national team to bag the Thomas Cup, a symbol of international badminton team supremacy, on half-a-dozen occasions.
One must not forget his sterling singles contribution in five Chinese Sudirman Cup mixed team championship wins. There were also five Asian Games golds, including a rare ‘double’ of the individual and team event titles on home soil at Guangzhou in 2010. He was almost unbeatable in the Asian Championships in the first half of this last decade, winning the gold four times in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015.
In other vital statistics, Lin Dan ended his career with 66 international titles, and with a success record of 666 wins against 128 losses from the 794 matches he played on the world circuit. He first hit the pinnacle of the world rankings on 26 February, 2004, but had slid to the 19th spot when the BWF rankings were last announced on 10 March this year.
Lin’s rivalry with Lee Chong Wei was the stuff of legend, and was looked forward to by fans in much the same manner as the Federer-Rafael Nadal face-off in tennis. It was often said that the speedy, aggressive, hard-hitting Malaysian was desperately unlucky to have been born in the same era as his great antagonist; else, he would have comprehensively dominated the rankings in any other age.
Even given their keen rivalry, Lee dominated the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings and was World No 1 for a record 349 weeks, equivalent to nearly seven years. This included a 199-week streak from 21 August, 2008 to 14 June, 2012. But if he remained a three-time silver medallist at the Olympics, and failed to surmount that final barrier, it was twice (at Beijing 2008 and London 2012) due to the virtuosity of his nemesis, Lin Dan.
The two clashed an astonishing 40 times in international competition; and the iron temperament of the Chinese southpaw saw him end triumphant on 28 occasions, leaving Lee to rest content with the round dozen victories. The hugely popular Malaysian could never conquer his left-handed opponent at either the World Championships or the Olympics; and was conferred the unwanted title of perennial bridesmaid by his few detractors.
It was never for lack of trying. One vividly remembers Lee’s Herculean efforts at the 2013 Worlds in Guangzhou when he cramped so badly when down 17-20 in the deciding game that he was unable to play the final point, and conceded the match on that score. Lin, who had hopped across the court to assist his ailing rival, was so relieved after the handshake that he whipped off his T-shirt and did an impromptu bare-chested jig on the court in unbridled jubilation.
Lee did slip one across Lin at the All-England in 2011 by a relatively facile 21-17, 21-17 scoreline, but that was five years after he had lost an agonizingly close final to his Chinese rival at Birmingham in 2006, at 14-17 in the decider, after holding a match-point at 14-13. The 2012 London Olympic final was even tighter, with the scores teetering at 19-all in the third game before ending at 21-15, 10-21, 19-21 in Lin’s favour.
It must, therefore, have given Lee immense satisfaction when he strained every nerve and sinew at the 2016 Rio Olympics, to edge his nemesis out by a 22-20 margin in the decider of their semi-final clash. But the effort so sapped him physically and emotionally that he proved relatively easy meat for Lin’s compatriot, Chen Long, in the final the next day, by a 18-21, 18-21 scoreline.
Some claim it to be apocryphal, but the story goes that a letter purportedly written by Lin Dan was delivered to Lee Chong Wei the same evening, a couple of hours after their match, when the two arch-rivals had embraced at the net and exchanged sweat-soaked T-shirts, to the wild cheers of the Brazilian crowd.
A somewhat stilted English translation of the Chinese text was made available to badminton lovers; and it is reproduced below, verbatim. It showed that, in addition to a great talent, a strong mind and the two gold medals he won in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, Lin Dan had a heart made of the same metal that is proverbially seen to indicate the highest level of goodness.
“The 37th time I faced you across from the net, we have come full circle from the first time we met,” the Chinese star wrote. “To be honest, the moment when I lost to you, I had no regrets. You are my greatest opponent, and I was willing to lose to you with no regrets. When I hugged you, I truly felt that the ten years with you has been like a dream.
“I will keep your jersey and tell my future children about you. I would tell them that there is someone named Lee Chong Wei – my greatest opponent, and my greatest friend.”
Isn’t that what sport is all about?
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