Rudy Hartono, Lin Dan, Poul-Erik Hoyer, or Lee Chong Wei, who wins the badminton GOAT race?
Forget cold statistics, for the X-factor needed for any player to qualify for the title of the Greatest Of All Time, there appears to be no need to look beyond Lin Dan.
Statistics, it is said, rarely tell the complete tale. What they hide is often far more eye-opening than what they reveal. And so it is for that most pleasurable of pastimes for badminton lovers and keen students of the sport – to work out who is the biggest contender for the hallowed title of GOAT – Greatest (shuttler) Of All Time.
There are several claimants to that lofty pedestal, prime amongst them being the recently retired duo of Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei and China’s Lin Dan, who have comprehensively dominated international badminton in the first two decades of the current millennium.
Lee had a glittering 15-year international career between 2004 and 2019, in the course of which he won more badminton titles than any other player in the annals of the sport. Lin, who hung up his racquet earlier this month, had an equally illustrious career, spanning two entire decades (2001-2020) when he played for the Chinese national squad, and won every worthwhile title in the sport, including two Olympic golds and five World Championship titles.
But there are other stalwarts whose names are fogged over by the passage of years, who could also be considered strong contenders for the hallowed title of GOAT. Some of the younger generations would not even have heard their names, but their virtuosity on the badminton court was unquestioned, and their opponents invariably had a look of resignation on their faces when faced with the prospect of encountering these giants in the next round, or in their section of the draw.
Indonesia’s Rudy Hartono, who won the All-England title eight times from ten entries into the final in an eleven-year span between 1968 and 1978, when the All-England was considered the unofficial World Championship, is still thought of by many (including India’s 1980 All-England champion, Prakash Padukone) to be the best player of all time. Hartono followed up his long All-England reign with the official World Championship crown in 1980, on only the second occasion that the global competition was held after its inaugural edition in 1977.
Hartono’s immediate predecessor, the great Dane, Erland Kops, bagged the All-England crown at Wembley seven times from eight finals between 1957 and 1967, in the face of some tremendous opposition, and could be forgiven for his somewhat disparaging remark that Hartono won the title more times than him because any Indonesian who came up against him in the earlier rounds would 'throw' the match on the instructions of the country’s badminton federation. Hartono would hence be fresher for subsequent rounds than his biggest rivals from other countries.
Well before Kops and Hartono made the Wembley Arena their private fiefdom, there were players who had won the unofficial world championship multiple times. George Alan Thomas (after whom the international men’s team competition has been named) lit up the first five years after the cessation of World War I, winning the All-England crown four times between 1920 and 1923, before surrendering it in his fifth consecutive final in 1924.
Joseph Francis (better known as Frank) Devlin followed him onto the Wembley courts almost immediately thereafter, winning the singles title six times in seven years between 1925 and 1931, and the clean sweep of titles (singles, doubles and mixed) thrice in his record 18 All-England crowns.
Frank’s daughter, Judy Devlin Hashman (known as Little Red Dev for the flaming colour of her hair and the diminution of her surname), won 17 titles at the All-England, ten in singles and seven in doubles with her sister Sue. Her feat of bagging a whopping 31 titles at the US Open between 1954 and 1967 makes her a supreme contender for the title of the greatest female shuttler of all time.
Ralph Cyril Fulford Nichols was the next man, after Frank Devlin, to make the All-England men’s singles title virtually his own. In the years 1932-38 immediately preceding World War II, Nichols featured in six out of seven finals, winning on five occasions, including two over his arch-rival, Raymond Maurice White.
The War years (1939-45) robbed the American, Dr David (Dave) Guthrie Freeman, of the opportunity of establishing his hegemony on the world’s most coveted badminton title. With his characteristic quickness, fitness, agility, and shot-making prowess, he won seven US Open titles, as also the All-England on the sole occasion he was able to contest for it – in 1949. Many felt that he would have been a fine contender in the GOAT stakes.
The first eight years of the 1950s were totally dominated by the two Malays, Wong Peng Soon and Eddie Choong, who won four titles apiece at Wembley. Peng Soon never lost an All-England final between 1950 and '55, but Eddy Choong was beaten in two finals apart from the four he won between 1952 and '57. Erland Kops was slain by the bouncy, super-fit Choong in the 1957 final, but the Dane returned the following year to establish an iron hold on the All-England singles crown.
All the foregoing history examined and dissected, it still comes down to a straight fight between Lee Chong Wei (soon to be 38 years of age) and Lin Dan (soon to be 37) for the title of the Greatest.
All said and done, it is really hardly fair to compare the champions of different eras on the criterion that the top-notchers of yesteryear could not have stood up in the face of the pace, power, and fitness of today’s aces of the courts. As the legendary Nandu Natekar is fond of saying, “A champion of bygone times would be a champion in any era; he would have adjusted to the demands of modern-day badminton.”
Nevertheless, to determine who deserves to be at the pinnacle, one has to consider a show of consistent excellence, fitness, courtcraft, stroke-making ability and match temperament over a protracted period of time, plus that X-factor that raises a player head and shoulders above all others.
On today’s crowded professional badminton circuit, players have the opportunity of competing for many more international titles than the great gladiators of yesteryear. They play many more matches, have the latest training and coaching techniques at their disposal, and have managers who sort out their every need and leave them free to concentrate on their training and playing. At the back of their minds, they are secure in the knowledge that they have more than sufficient wherewithal to be assured of a comfortable livelihood even after the end of their playing days.
Both Lee and Lin qualify on virtually all the above success parameters, except for the fact that the Malaysian found the Chinese left-hander to be the sole stumbling block in his quest for immortality. Try as he might, Lee just could not get past his Chinese antagonist when it mattered the most. It was a mental block which the unassuming Malaysian readily admitted to, on that fateful day, 13 June 2019, when he announced that his year-long battle with nose cancer would not permit him to continue on the badminton court.
On the strength of sheer statistics, Lee is marginally ahead of his great rival, winning 721 of the 855 matches he played during his career, for a winning percentage of 84 percent. By comparison, Lin, who comes in second place in the chart of best over-all career winning percentage, won 670 of the 804 matches in which he featured, for a success percentage of 83 percent. Both players coincidentally lost 134 matches apiece.
Third on the list of players with outstanding career records is the Dane, Poul-Erik Hoyer Larsen (currently president of the Badminton World Federation), who had a success rate of 81 percent. Pint-sized Indonesian Ardy Wiranata, who had to pull the shutters down on his career early due to recurrent injuries, also ended with a success figure of 81 percent. Neither of these two fine players comes anywhere near the sheer number of matches that the domineering Lee and Lin played during the ongoing millennium.
Of all the players in this elite list who are still playing, and could have a chance of at least statistically overhauling the two retired stalwarts, one has just China’s Chen Long (2016 Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champion) of China, with figures of 439 wins and 114 losses from 553 matches, for a success percentage of 79 percent, the same as Japan’s Kento Momota (the two-time reigning world champion), with figures of 255 victories and 67 losses from 322 matches.
Both have a long way to go before they can think of matching the figures of Lee and Lin; and it must be said that the 31-year-old Chen already appears to be on the decline, while the 26-year-old Momota had hit the finest winning streak of his career during the 2019 season, before a road accident in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the Malaysian Masters in January this year almost induced him to hang up his racquet.
Thus, to weigh the rival claims of Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan, one needs to first set aside the statistical red herring of quantity (since it must be conceded that Lee Chong Wei was a veritable workhorse, and participated in far more tournaments than Lin Dan did), and look at the quality of the players’ win-loss record. It becomes immediately apparent who is the better of the two.
It is significant that, of the 40 matches they played against each other in the course of their concurrent careers, Lin came out on top 28 times, and conceded defeat to Lee on only a dozen occasions, including just once each at a key competition like the All-England (in 2011) and Olympic Games (at Rio in 2016).
Of the top titles that define the quality of a player, one must put the Olympics and World Championships in stellar position. And here, Lee falls flat on his face, for he has not won either.
It did not matter that 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 the Malaysian 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; and once, after he had conquered Lin in the semi-final of the 2016 Games, thanks to Lin’s compatriot, Chen Long.
Meanwhile, Lin 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 the southpaw’s 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.
For that X-factor needed for any player to qualify for the title of the Greatest Of All Time, there appears to be no need to look beyond Lin Dan. Our generation has been singularly fortunate to see in jaw-dropping action this amazing player, widely touted to be the Roger Federer of badminton.
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