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Malaysia’s badminton king Lee Chong Wei retires after cancer battle

Lee Chong Wei rose to become a modern badminton great, beloved by his fans despite his tantalising failures to bring home the biggest trophies of all.

other sports Updated: Jun 13, 2019 23:37 IST
Sandip Sikdar
Sandip Sikdar
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Lee Chong Wei,Lee Chong Wei badminton,badminton
In this file photo taken on March 12, 2017, Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei celebrates his victory over China's Lin Dan.(AFP)

As tears rolled down the cheeks of Lee Chong Wei while announcing his retirement, arch nemesis Lin Dan posted a message on Chinese social media platform Weibo: “I will be alone on the court and no one will accompany me”, attached with a Mandarin ballad, ‘Friends Don’t Cry’.

Thus comes to an end an illustrious career and a storied rivalry that stretched 19 years, entertaining badminton fans and keeping them on the edge of their seats all over the globe.

Affectionately called LCW by his followers, the 36-year-old Lee was approaching the end of his badminton career, but had hoped for another stab at an Olympic medal at the 2020 Games. That hope was cut short by the diagnosis of early-stage nose cancer, detected July last year. Following treatment in Taiwan, the Malaysian maestro resumed training in January but soon realised that a return to full fitness would not be possible. Although cleared of the cancer, recent consultation with doctors in Japan showed he was not fit for high-intensity training.

“I have no regrets. More important is my health. The decision to retire is very tough. My plan to retire was originally after the Olympic Games. I made this decision due to my health,” said an emotional Lee in Putrajaya on Thursday.

It was the end of an era in badminton, and one of its most dominant yet intriguing careers: Lee was one of badminton’s all-time greats, but he never won two of its biggest titles—Olympic gold, and the World Championship. He made it to the finals of each—thrice at the Olympics, thrice at the World Championships, and returned with a silver every time. At all other stages, he was nearly unbeatable—he was world No.1 for a record 348 weeks (including 199 straight weeks from August 2008 to June 2012), and won 47 Superseries titles, more than any other player.

With lightning reflexes and a dazzling array of weapons, Lee was known for spending hours in training, trying to better his skills and hone his deft footwork.

These qualities made him an icon, not just in Malaysia, but in every country that has an interest in badminton.

Spain’s Carolina Marin, who won gold at the 2016 Olympics, considers him her role model; so does Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen. Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, and Kidambi Srikanth, revere him as a sporting hero, all having imbibed a tact or two from his game to grow as a player.

The rivalry

But Lee will be most remembered for his rivalry with Lin Dan, against whom he forged one of the biggest sporting rivalries of all.

Having lost the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals in Beijing and London to Lin Dan, Lee finally took vengeance when he beat his ‘close friend’ in the semis in Rio 2016, only to lose the final, this time to new Chinese kid on the block, Chen Long.

Lee was also a runner-up in three World Championship finals, twice against Lin Dan in 2011 and 2013 and once to Chen in 2015.

Though the competition was loaded in favour of the Chinese great, who had a 27-11 record against LCW, the Malaysian too had his days when he beat Lin Dan at the All England Open or Thomas Cup finals.

Their rivalry is reminiscent of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, or Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. As Prost puts it, “My story is not complete without mentioning Ayrton, neither is his story complete without mentioning me.” It is almost impossible to mention LCW and not think of Lin Dan.

“Lin Dan and myself are rivals on the court but outside, we are close friends. I hope Lin Dan will play in the Tokyo Olympics. But he faces challenges from younger players,” said the four-time All England champion.

Though he will not head to Tokyo as a player next year, the Malaysian sports ministry ensured that Lee will be at the 2020 Olympics, this time as chef-de-mission of the Malaysian contingent.

The controversy

Despite all the highs, Lee’s career has not been without controversy. At the peak of his game in 2014, Lee tested positive for a banned anti-inflammatory at the World Championships. The episode sidelined him for eight months and he slid down the world rankings.

The authorities accepted his explanation that he took the drug accidentally during stem-cell treatment for a thigh injury but gave him a backdated ban of eight months. His comeback in 2015, where he rapidly rose back to the top of the rankings, showed his grit and mettle.

A father of two sons, Kingston and Terrence, Lee will focus on his health and spending time with his family. “You know I got married in 2012. But we have never gone for a honeymoon. I owe this promise (to my wife). Now I have to please her,” said Lee, before concluding in a Facebook post: “Well. I’m done. Thank you very much to all of you. Lee Chong Wei signing out.”

First Published: Jun 13, 2019 21:01 IST