After 13 years of purring and staring, gnawing and gnashing, wilting and wincing, “enemies” is how Malaysia’s badminton icon Lee Chong Wei describes his legendary Chinese rival, Lin Dan. The good-humoured allusion sounds apt, just that it glosses over the angst that he may have justifiably nurtured, thanks to his 27 heart-breaking losses to the five-time world champion.
The image told another story though. Away from the punishing glare of millions and safe from the unforgiving pressures of a bust-up, there they sat, next to each other; their jocular demeanour giving a peek into their off-court relationship that brims with mutual admiration and respect.
“Me and Lin Dan started in Asian Juniors. We fight fiercely on the court, but we are very good friends off it,” the Rio Olympics silver-medallist said.
They should know. They are learnt to share the passion for fast cars and watches, and Super Dan is known to have invited Lee to his wedding.
On the court, though, their pound-for-pound skills and quicksilver reflexes have made fans across the world gasp in disbelief. The 2011 World Championships final in London is a classic case in point, where Lee, refusing to be bogged down by his great rival, came out all guns blazing.
He still lost, which is an ode to Lin’s immaculate skills and adaptability.
The Chinese held a vice-like grip over Lee in major events, until Rio 2016 happened. Lee registered his solitary win over Lin at the Olympics, coming back from a game down and slaying a few mental demons in the process.
The duo, that was in Mumbai along with former World No 1 and All England winner Peter Gade of Denmark, Indonesian great Taufik Hidayat, and South Korea’s former doubles expert Lee Yong Dae for Yonex’s Legends’ Vision World Tour, found itself on the same side of the net. Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu smiled at them from the other end.
The five-point match was played in more seriousness than probably intended. Under the psychedelic lights, in front of a raucous audience, and perhaps aware of their collective might on the circuit, they traded sizzling smashes and delicate drops, devastating drives and teasing tosses, and by the time the Sindhu-Nehwal alliance secured their win— thanks largely to Sindhu’s body smashes that found Lin Dan wanting, thrice — the exhibition fixture had managed to shed some of its irrelevance.
For Lin and Lee, playing on the same side didn’t make any difference apart from the fact that the pyrotechnics didn’t come against each other. To a casual fan, it was a crash course in high-speed badminton; to a seasoned observer, it was an optimistic moment of “what if”.
The sight of Lin and Lee having a go at each other is surreal. One lunges, other pulls back; one straightens, other drops; one squats, other stretches; one dives, other flies. They took the court against each other too, albeit in doubles, and the niceties soon made way for the odd occasions where, one suspects, the players pulled back their smashes and held back their jumps, almost as an afterthought over expending themselves.
Earlier in the day, Gade had eloquently dwelled on the importance of ‘celebrity’ players for the growth of sport.
“I think it's very important for the sport to have celebrities; people who are performing at a high level and those who people know about as well. That's what you see now in India. I'm sure they know quite a bit about these guys sitting here,” he said, pointing towards the pair as they exchanged a quick, sheepish smile.
Gade was not off the mark. Certainly not on a day when a Mumbai crowd cheered for Lin and Lee longer and louder than they did for, well Sachin Tendulkar.
“We still have few years to fight. Our rivalry is good for badminton. I think everybody wants to see it. Everybody knows Lin Dan is a key player in our sport,” Lee, a three-time Olympic medallist, said.
For 39 matches that they have played against each other, Lin and Lee have purred and spurred, hurt and hugged, wept and won. Their unfair skills separated by a flimsy net, the duo has been badminton’s equivalent of Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier and Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe, and not unlike those legendary rivals, the Asian pair has made suffering a treat to behold.
Each time Lee walks on to the court against Lin, he carries with him the yoke of being the best bridesmaid; of being lucky enough to be as preposterously gifted as he is and yet being made aware of the brutally irrevocable happenstance of having born in the same era as Lin. The fight is as much against the past as against the man sending the shuttle across at impossible angles and at paralysing pace.
The thing about such duels is that as much as the participants want the opponent out of their sight, their presence is imperative to their lore. Think Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal. Think Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky. Think the opus of Shane Warne without the Tendulkar footnote, or Martina Navratilova’s stunning career without Chris Evert’s interjection. Their celebrity feeds off each other; their popular memory almost irreparably intertwined with their biggest challenger. Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan — enemies and friends — are no different.
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Updated Date: Nov 07, 2017 18:16:08 IST