Mumbai: It was a moment to savour for Daren Liew. Another higher ranked player had been humbled. Delhi Dashers' star shuttler HS Prannoy was brushed aside in straight games in the Premier Badminton League (PBL). It may only have been an exhibition match, but for the Malaysian, every win counts as it gives him the hope to continue playing the sport he once nearly quit.
After all, he was burdened by the expectations of emulating the success of his country and one of badminton's greatest Lee Chong Wei, who has won three Olympic silver, four World Championships medals and held the World No 1 spot for 199 consecutive weeks from 2008 to 2012. It proved a little too much for Liew. "In Malaysia, everyone kept saying that I was the next Lee Chong Wei. But he has set the bar so high. It's very hard to be like him."
In the process, all that promise and potential just went for a toss as the 31-year-old shuttler settled for less and ended up playing in the lower half of the circuit.
But at this year's World Championships in Nanjing, Liew had his long-lost mojo back to claim a bronze medal. In the absence of Lee Chong Wei, he was Malaysia's No 1 at the world meet. On his way to a podium finish, he stood tall against the higher-ranked lot, including World No 11 Jonatan Christie, former World No 1 Kidambi Srikanth and Japan's Kanta Tsuneyama to etch his name into the history books.
"I never expected it. In the first round against Christie, nobody expected me to win. That match actually did well for my confidence and I started to play better and better and much more freely. I started to believe in myself and that I stand a chance to do something."
It wasn't his first major title. The Malaysian's only notable win came in the 2012 French Open Superseries, where he defeated 2017 world champion Viktor Axelsen in the final. He became the only Malaysian men's singles shuttler after Lee Chong Wei to have won a Superseries title. "People started to expect more from me and that gave me a lot of pressure. I started to struggle," recalls Liew. "I tried hard and some matches just didn't come my way. I started to doubt my own talent and many times, I thought about giving up."
Instead of climbing the ladder, he crumbled under pressure and fell into a pit of depression. To an extent where he even considered quitting the sport in his 20s. The final of the 2014 Thomas Cup, where Malaysia lost 2-3 to Japan, was the breaking point for Liew. "I lost the deciding match (against former World No 12 Takuma Ueda)," he says. "It was the lowest point of my career. I felt that it was just better for me to stop playing because there was a lot of pressure and I just couldn't perform."
He famously fell out with the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) in 2016, two years after failing to skipper his team to victory in the 2014 Thomas Cup in India. And since then, he's playing the sport on his own terms.
With the complete support of his parents and coaches, Liew didn't give up and continued to train independently for tournaments. From organising training sessions to transportation to sponsorship deals, the Kuala Lumpur native chose the hard way for his own good.
So, as soon as his campaign ends at an international tournament, the first thing he does is pick up his phone and scour the cheapest flight back home. "That happens when you decide to become an individual player," he explains. "The team was demanding results from me and I was not producing. So I thought that maybe if I became an independent player, I'd become better. Now I don't feel that pressure and I feel freer. So it's much better."
He became only the third Malaysian to win a World Championships medal and that gave him the recognition he has always wanted. "Back home, it was a big surprise for everyone because nobody expected me to go far at all," he says. "Now whenever I'm home, people have started recognising me. They stop me if they see me at a mall or something like that, and ask for photographs."
Liew wants to stay away from the expectations of becoming the next Lee Chong Wei. Apart from him, other Malaysian shuttlers like Iskandar Zulkarnain and Chong Wei Feng have suffered a downfall due to the high expectations and Liew sees it as a stumbling block for up-and-coming talents.
"Even my juniors now are struggling with that expectation. Especially now when people are thinking that he's going to retire soon. When he was at his peak, he won 6-7 big titles in a year," he says.
Chinese Taipei Open winner Lee Zii Jia is tipped to carry the torch forward but Liew knows that the path is not clear for the 20-year-old shuttler. "He's the one that people say will take over from Lee Chong Wei. But you know, it's not so easy. When you are young and coming up, it's not tough. But to maintain the same level of performance is very hard," he says.
Lee Chong Wei is temporarily out of the tour after being diagnosed with cancer, and the Malaysians have switched their focus to Liew, given that he is now the highest ranked player from the country. "I'm the first one on that list," he laughs.
But now, after handling the pressure and the scrutiny the sport offers, he feels prepared for everything.
"Things don't affect me that much now. I'm older and have more experience. It's harder to handle when you're younger, but now I've been through worse."
Liew is settling down as an independent athlete and the World Championships bronze was just a warm-up. He wants to draw motivation from each win.
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Updated Date: Dec 28, 2018 19:52:26 IST