Rivalry (noun) – competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field
Nemesis (noun) – the inescapable or implacable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall
A sporting rivalry occupies a unique place in the minds of sports fans. It gives an added edge to the contest and provides a story within a story in the context of the game’s end result.
A rivalry in an individual sport is all the more special; there’s one and only one person around whom the entire show revolves. There are no teammates around, no different positions, no main actor or side actors. The man/woman at the centre of proceedings receives the highest accolade in victory and the most exasperated gasps in defeat.
Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan bring that special intensity to a badminton match. Just as when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal line up across the net to each other in the final of a Grand Slam, like when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier went head to head in their heydays.
Malaysia’s Chong Wei is the world number one in men’s badminton. Barring the temporary shift down to No.2, he has been at the head of the rankings for the vast majority of the last five years; round about the time that he usurped his great rival and nemesis, Lin Dan of China, in these very rankings.
Lee is one of the most successful shuttlers to have ever played. Here is a man who has 48 titles to his name and another 25 second place finishes. He has won numerous awards, including the prestigious BWF Player of the Year award, three years in a row from 2009-2011.
Since he burst onto to the stage, Lee has been racking up Super Series title wins by the truckload and has won most of the prestigious events in the badminton calendar including the All England championships.
Yet, there remain some key elements missing from his repertoire of accomplishments – namely the World Championship Gold and the Olympic Gold. In badminton, success in these two competitions represents the ultimate zenith for a player. And one man has stood in the way of Lee Chong Wei, preventing him from achieving ultimate greatness.
Enter Lin Dan!
If there ever was a superstar in badminton, it would have to be Lin Dan. The sport has had its legends, great winners and competitors in the past. But Lin carries something of a rockstar following with an army of delirious fans. He is a two-time Olympic champion, a four-time world champion and a five-time All England champion and is the most accomplished badminton player ever.
Lin is already considered to be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) by many; by the age of 28, Lin had completed the ‘Super Grand Slam’, having won all nine majors in world badminton – the Olympic games, World Championships, World Cup, Thomas Cup, Sudirman Cup, Super Series Masters Finals, All England Open, Asian Games and Asian Championships.
In the process, he became the first player to achieve this feat and is the only one to date who has managed it. It is for a reason, his legion of fans call him ‘Super Dan!’
The 50 singles titles aside, he has played a starring role as the proverbial thorn in the flesh in Lee Chong Wei’s ascent to greatness. The pair has met a total of 30 times with Lin leading the head-to-head record 21-9.
Not only that, he has gotten the better of Lee in every Olympic and World Championship clash that they have had; while he has been able to beat Lin in finals of the Super Series events, he has found Lin, a peak too tough to scale in these competitions.
At the 2011 World Championships final, Lin won 20-22, 21-14, 23-21 in a tense match in which he saved save match points. At the Olympics, they first met in the final of the 2008 Beijing Olympics badminton event. Lee and the Malaysian fans entered the final believing that they were in with a real chance, only to have Lin mercilessly crush those hopes as he dismissed Lee’s challenge 21-12, 21-8.
Last year, in London, the pair clashed again for the second straight Olympic final in a match that will be long remembered in the archives of men’s badminton. Lee, just like at the World Championships final a year ago, once again took the first game with some brilliant badminton and exquisite court movement.
Lin came roaring back to win the second. There was a collective gulp from the Malaysian fans as that happened; they had been here before, they had seen their man wilt before against the inspired play of the Chinese superstar.
The third game was a nail biter. Once again, Lee came within touching distance of the title, leading 19-18 in the decider, two points away. The Malaysian on the next point would go on to misjudge the flight of the shuttle, thinking it was going long and allowing it to drop.
Lee would drop not just the point, but also the Olympic gold as Lin took advantage of the small opening that his opponent had given to charge back and claim the title 15-21, 21-10, 21-19. As Lin took off his shirt and ran into celebration with the boisterous Chinese supporters, Lee sank to his feet, a man devastated.
For Lee, such defeats have over the years left a deep scar, with fans doubting his ability to win the really big ones – the World Championships, the Olympic Games or the Asian Games Gold medals. The talent is definitely there, but his self-belief, resolve and temperament have been questioned.
The ‘choker’ tag too has cropped up in a few discussions. The jury has been divided on whether Lin really did up his level of play to win those matches or if it was just a case of Lee choking in the crucial moments. The Malaysian’s failure to even make the final on a couple of occasions has only added to that.
Barring a few early clashes, the majority of the pair’s matches have been played with Lee as the world number one, much to the dismay of his fans, that even as the top ranked player in the world he has not been able to beat a lower-ranked Lin.
At the Championships, starting August 5th in Guangzhou, China, Lee will undertake another campaign to try and capture his first World Championship Gold medal. He is once again the top dog in the competition, entering the tournament as world number one. And for a brief while, he was thought to have had a clear path to glory, with his nemesis not in the fray.
That is until, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) decided to grant a wild card to Lin for the event. The four-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion had not qualified for the world meet after taking an eight-month break, but the world body extended the invitation as they felt that Lin’s presence would do great justice and add some glitter to the tournament.
Lee felt that it was unfair for the BWF to allow his great rival to participate via wild card as China already had three qualifiers on merit. A country can have a maximum of three players if all of them are in the top 24 and China’s top three are Chen Long, Du Pengyu and Wang Zhengming.
The Malaysian though is resigned to the fact that he cannot reverse the BWF’s decision, and while disappointed, has resolved to not allow that decision to dampen his spirits ahead of the event. Lin’s ranking, due to his enforced absence, had dropped to 41st in the world and he will not be seeded in the tournament. The good news though, is that the two champions have been drawn in separate halves and will not meet each other until the final.
Experts feel it will be difficult for Lin to reach his peak form after such a long break away from the game. But Lee knows better: “I was injured before the London Olympic Games and many thought that it would be difficult for me to do well but I still played some of my best matches to reach the final of the Games.”
After his loss at last year’s Olympics, Lee gave a ringing endorsement of his foe: “Lin Dan is a brilliant player; I just have to keep working hard.”
His talent and hard work have made Lee Chong Wei a badminton star. He hasn’t been the world number one for so long for nothing. He embarks once again with his sights set on attaining that elusive gold, knowing at the back of his mind that a potential clash with his nemesis looms large on the horizon.
Lee will be happy if he does not have to scale the Great Wall of China en route to golden success. But in the eventuality of it happening, Malaysians, Chinese and badminton fans world over will be glued in to watch a tantalising contest.
A place on the Mount Rushmore of badminton beckons for Lee Chong Wei.