It seemed like Lee Chong Wei had lost his grip on the game he loved the most. One of the most prolific shuttlers in the history of badminton lunged uncomfortably and struggled to hit the bird, something the Malaysian had mastered since bursting out on the scene at the 2000 Asian Junior Championships. The unexpected first-round defeat in the recently-concluded World Badminton Championships in Glasgow at the hands of Brice Leverdez was clearly an indication that Lee's game had slowed down a bit. If the Glasgow disappointment doesn't prove it, the straight-game loss against Japan's Kenta Nishimoto in the Round of 32 at the French Open should. Just after the 2016 Rio Olympics, a slew of questions was raised about the 35-year-old's time on the international circuit after failing to win his maiden gold in three attempts. As tournaments passed by, Lee's reflexes appeared sluggish and his much-talked-about swift court coverage didn't please the audience as it did a few years ago.
After winning the 2017 BWF season opener – the All England Open in March, it was evident that Lee's form went for a toss thereafter. But does that signal the end of Lee's time on the international circuit? That would be too early to judge a player who has won 66 titles but there comes a difficult time in an athlete's career where they become a prisoner of their own greatness. They do make room for up-and-coming players in return to enter the fray but their once-dominating traits would fade away. A series of inconsistent performances at the Indonesia, Japan, China and at the World Championships indicated the fact that Lee's warrior-like on-court demeanour was starting to diminish.
But just like how tennis maestro Roger Federer marked his return to excellence with Australian Open and Wimbledon triumph after missing out most of 2016 due to a knee injury, the Federer of badminton too had to walk the talk. Notably this season, Federer did not possess the same kind of speed and on-court awareness he once had, but he tweaked his game in such a way that he could still torment opponents at will.
Something similar was on show during the Hong Kong Open Superseries tournament in Kowloon last week. Despite the eight-month title hoodoo, Lee forced fans to rub eyes and scratch their heads in disbelief as the four-time former champion decimated World No 2 Son Wan Ho 21-11, 21-12 in the quarter-finals. The Malay ace didn't float on the court and take his opponent by surprise with his quick foot movements but showed glimpses of his unplayable strokes from the base position to unsettle the Korean. What's next? The in-form Shi Yuqi was left stranded on the other side of the court as the Malaysian nabbed points quickly before the mid-game break of both the games to register a 21-14, 21-19 win. Lee was cruising once again.
The Hong Kong Open, the last Superseries event of the year, did not have top seeds Viktor Axelsen and Kidambi Srikanth but it had discovered a rejuvenated Lee. To claim straight-game wins over higher-ranked shuttlers at such an age is quite remarkable. More so because of the dreary calendar year where giant-killer HS Prannoy tamed Lee not once but twice. However, just when one believed that the end for the triple Olympic silver medallist was nigh, he managed to roar back and stormed into his fourth final of 2017.
But, the bigger test awaited on Sunday. China's Chen Long, who was back to winning ways after cracking a 25-month title drought by claiming the China Open Superseries Premier title a week ago, had his sight set on claiming a second major title in a space of two weeks. Interestingly, this was the duo's first meeting since the titanic summit clash at the Rio Olympics last year. A lot had transpired since then but what was to come ahead had fans on the edge of their seats. Seven minutes into the opening game, Chen would find himself struggling to read the pace of Lee's attacking strokes from the front. The Chinese dived left and right just so that he could push the bird across the net. Such was the struggle. Lee had him on the sidelines with ease and wrapped the first game 21-14. This was classic Lee, but not with his extraordinary reflexes or flawless netplay. All he did rely on were the delicate crosscourt slices and unexpected flat smashes from the backcourt.
Following a lengthy chat with his coach, Chen was ready for the second stanza. And the two-time world champion took a 15-10 lead and had complete control of the second game. Most of Lee's shots hit the frame as the Malaysian was in search of a winner. Who knew that the next five points would more or less decide the outcome of the summit clash? Lee breached the impenetrable defence of Chen and at 15-15, nervousness forced Chen to panic. This has been the Malaysian's strategy since his heydays. Suddenly, he had regained the lost touch. Despite being on the front at 18-16, Chen squandered a two-point lead and ended up hitting the shuttle wide. Lee had the mental strength to pip his Chinese counterpart 21-19 and claim a record fifth Hong Kong Open title and avenge the Rio Olympics final loss.
— Dato' Lee Chong Wei (@LeeChongWei) November 26, 2017
A third straight-game victory over a higher-ranked shuttler had proved that he has still got it. The second title of the year is a testament to the fact that the ageing Malaysian can still send in-form shuttlers packing. After being surrounded by injuries and the controversy where former Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) president Morten Frost reportedly questioned Lee's time on the international stage, Lee had responded with courage. "I will be back next year as the defending champion in what is my second home," said Lee after beating Chen. Clearly, the Malaysian has shrugged off retirement rumours and as long as he is enjoying the sport, he shouldn't retire. He has used his reserved experience to his advantage and it is certain that the right-handed shuttler will be looking at causing more upsets with same vigour at the upcoming Dubai World Superseries Finals. Now that he has confirmed his participation in next year's BWF season, Lee should draw heart from someone like a Federer or Sachin Tendulkar, who seemed off-colour at times but found their mojo back, defied age before it could haunt them.
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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2017 13:31:18 IST