Taking turns between pacing the birthing centre of Gleneagles, Kuala Lumpur, and rushing to his wife’s bedside, Lee Chong Wei's anxiety was mounting. He had been adequately warned of the bloody aftermath, but the thought-out decision to usher in the new life, holding Wong Mew Choo’s sweaty palm, was his. It was the champion’s way of making up for his prolonged absence during the pregnancy. “Three months,” he said, the eyes scouring the ceiling for an exact figure of his presence at home.
But when it mattered, it was family over badminton. For long, he’s borne the pressures of being world No 1, the body often protesting as he inches towards 31, but the wait with bated anticipation, “feeling helpless”, as Wong underwent surgery, had no parallel.
Tears of joy
The joy of holding son, Kingston, and relief of a successful procedure, left the unflappable Malaysian needing an outlet. “I cried uncontrollably,” he said, feeling little shame. He had more than made up for his earlier absence but the procedure left him white in the face. He can afford a smile now, but all he could mutter then was, “playing badminton is easier”.
The gesture was not lost on the wife, a former top-10 singles player, and she helped soften Lee’s pain of leaving behind the 10-day-old child to travel for the India Open Super Series. “Sponsor commitments, you know,” he said. The phone rang; it was a video call. Lee turned the screen around, little Kingston was fast asleep. “Acts as a tonic,” he smiled, and a victory this week will be dedicated to the mother and son.
The latest occurrence on the home front might be occupying mind space, but the fierce competitor that he is, the conversation veers away. Finishing second-best twice, in Beijing and London, Lee is ready to push the limits of physical endurance in his quest for that elusive Olympic gold.
He isn’t guided by blind fury, rather it is thought out. A masseur and physiotherapist accompany him on tour to help recover faster from injuries, like the twisted ankle during the Thomas Cup finals last year which persisted till the end of the Olympic Games. Lee will take stock after the World Championships in August and again after the Asian Games next year. If the body holds and he’s able to set the record straight at these mega events too, Lee’s Rio campaign will be on.
Guarded about his privacy, Lee doesn’t mind being approached for the odd autograph while shopping with his wife. But when the numbers add up, a line is drawn. “There is no substitute to family time,” is the emphatic reply. If a soubriquet comes along, it doesn’t matter.
Not prone to emotion, his historic rivalry with Lin Dan has the eyes sparkling. The on-court moments are numerous, he can’t place a finger on one, but where he concedes ground to the Chinese is his access to quality sparring partners. “In Malaysia, there are only juniors”.
Among the most feted sportsmen in his land, Lee is not ready to rest on his laurels. On the radar is the fifth National Sportsman Award, which will see him go past idol, Rashid Sidek.
Lee was 10 when Sidek helped Malaysia win the Thomas Cup at home in 1992. A euphoric nation observed a national holiday the next day. Watching the triumph on TV, the young one expressed a desire. “I told Mom, ‘how I hope a holiday is declared if I win’.”
The wish has been granted many times over.