Invariably in any sport, there will be players who need no introduction to even non-regular followers. Athletes who transcend the sport. For badminton, starting from the early 2000s, that role was performed by Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei. Two men who brought the best out of each other, but also elevated the sport overall for the near two decades they went up against each other.
And so it is fitting that their BWF Hall of Fame induction (never in doubt), is happening together on 26 May 2023. The two rivals played each other on the international circuit 38 times (Lin led 27-11). Lee finished with 47 BWF Superseries/World Tour titles in his cabinet and was world No.1 for an amazing 349 weeks (200 of those consecutive). Lin was unrivalled when it came to the Major Championships, with two Olympic and five World Championships titles.
From an Indian perspective, one person who is placed very well to speak about the greatness of the two superstars is HS Prannoy. The current world No 9 is the only Indian to beat both Lin and Lee more than once (he defeated them twice each).
In a conversation with Scroll before India’s recent campaign at the Sudirman Cup, Prannoy spoke about the greatness of the two legendary shuttlers through his experiences of playing them. And what defeating them meant to his career.
The first-person account below is as told to Vinayakk Mohanarangan.
When I started playing badminton, I still remember my dad getting a lot of CDs where the main matches used to be Lee Chong Wei-Lin Dan, Lin Dan-Taufik Hidayat, Taufik-Chong Wei. I was watching the same matches probably 100 times in the period of five to six years because we had only those CDs at that point. All these YouTube videos came a little later.
I was a big fan of Taufik because of the way he used to play, but I could always feel that Lin Dan and Chong Wei were a notch better, because they were able to play much more consistent badminton throughout the year.
When I started playing in this circuit, that’s when I realised, ‘okay, I have a chance to play against these guys if I push myself a little bit, if I push the rankings, then there might be an opportunity where I can get to play a first round somewhere or the other in a SuperSeries’.
I still remember that week in 2013 at India Open where I played Taufik once in the pre-quarters and beat him too (26-24, 21-9). And then the next round was against Chong Wei. I was like, it can’t get better than this. You have dreamed your whole life of playing these guys. And then it’s coming back to back. That too in India.
That was the first time when I played Chong Wei and I was left wondering: Man, what is this pace! Everybody used to say he’s insanely fast. But I could never get that until I was on court that day. I remember the first game going like a bullet train. And then I realised okay, this is how the best play. Probably the second game I got a little bit better, I would say I got a few more points than the first (14-21, 19-21 final score). That was an eye opener for me, especially because that’s when I realised how good Chong Wei was.
Lin Dan: Just absolutely perfect
And I remember in 2015 was the first time I could play against Lin Dan. That was at the Malaysia Open. I had very mixed emotions playing that match. First of all, there was utmost respect for the man and I was telling myself not to be a fanboy on the court! I remember I was also in top 15. I was telling myself constantly saying ‘Don’t be a fanboy, you’re playing this match’.
But, no it didn’t strike me that day.
The match just went by, I remember 21-15 21-14. I was never inside that match. And I also realised how good Lin Dan’s basics were. It was absolutely perfect for a badminton player... just absolutely perfect. A toss will come like a toss, and lift will come like a lift, and a drop will come like a drop.
When you play against both Lin and Lee, it’s a totally different kind of game which comes to you. With Lin Dan, you will feel that ‘okay, you have a chance’. Obviously I didn’t play him at his peak like in 2007, 2008. When he was playing that big heavy smash game, but probably when I started playing, you still felt that ‘okay, you have a chance against him and you can probably score a few points.’ Because his game used to be a little bit more subtle and he was not using his big smashes. He was just trying to prolong the rallies.
It was very physical against Lin Dan because the four corners of the court are used so well. And the control he had, I would say, has been one of the best I’ve ever seen. He’s not somebody who is going up on the net every single time and a lot of times he will play shots from very low angles. But the control in any drifty conditions – it might be very slow, it might be fast – was perfect.
I remember Lin and Momota playing at the Hong Kong Open (2018), it is one of those places where one side is extremely fast and one side is extremely slow. Whoever plays on the faster side will lose, and say 95% of the matches go to three games. And there, you could see Lin Dan and Momota doing a toss-drop rally from both the sides! And you realise how much control both of them have over that shuttle.
That’s how Lin Dan used to play. You go to any conditions anywhere in the world, he will get those lifts right to that third line. It is very, very tough to keep attacking from that third line. I think that’s what his speciality was. With the control of the shuttle... he was so good with any shuttle, any of the conditions, whoever the opponent is... I think he had that in his hand.
And his movements were extraordinary, I would say that it feels like he’s floating on the court... he is just always there, wherever you put the shuttle, he’s there. The angles are obviously different because he’s a left-hander. I think he always had that advantage of being a lefty so the angles would be really difficult especially the crosscourt drops which comes to your backhand side. All of these things made him very special.
A lot of learnings for me when I played against them. It’s not just about playing badminton, but also the preparations for a particular event. I’ve seen these guys live a lot of times. This is one example where in Malaysia I remember just before I played Lin Dan for the first time in 2015. I played him in the second round, he played Tommy [Sugiarto] in the first round. I was wishing that he wins his first round and I do mine and then we get to meet, so that’s what happened. I won my first round and he got a walkover from Tommy.
On that particular day, the way he was doing his training at the gym in the morning... we were all there and just doing little bit of warm up and stuff, but then he was hitting heavy weights very early on a match-day morning and literally pushing like probably a good 30% more than our usual training! I was wondering, is he not playing this tournament or what is happening? And of course he went on to play the final against Chen Long. I guess he was just driven to perform and that the preparation was something else.
Lee Chong Wei: A different species altogether
Chong Wei is also someone who can play in any conditions without any issues. You must have seen 2010 to 2012/2013, he used to beat players with scorelines like 21-6 and 21-7 and maximum, would be stretched to like 21-13. When you look at that, I think Chong Wei was a different species altogether. You had to be immensely fit to match him during the game. He used to be jet-fast.
I remember he used to open a new pair of shoes and then play in a Superseries first round. Like in front of us, he used to just remove his new shoes and start playing. We could never use new shoes for a proper match! We use them for four or five days, at least for a week, to get used to that. But Chong Wei used to just wear those new Yonex shoes and just go play. And man, he was so confident.
All these things, when we look back at all this, I could say from 2013 to 2018 I was really lucky to play against these guys and probably lucky enough to win two times also in those few meetings.
Those are wonderful memories for me because I don’t think God has given a lot of opportunities for other players for that.
When you get on court against these two, you know there is no room for errors
My last meeting against Chong Wei was at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (lost in a hard-fought semifinal). An important moment in my career. Things didn’t work out for me but it was one great experience. I played some of my best badminton that week but unfortunately I had to come back without a medal. But when you look at my match against Chong Wei, I think it was a great match to be honest where the scorelines would not have said it (21-16, 9-21, 21-14) but I think there was intensity from the first point. The previous meeting I had won against Chong Wei, so there was that fire in him and me too, because it was the CWG and I knew how important that semifinal was.
The way he changed his gears in the third game... when the points were going equal, I think the way he started to predict the game from my hand and started to really calculate how things are going to come in place was amazing. Because I saw that match later and then I realised how calculative he was in the third game to really counter what came at him.
If you look at Chong Wei, it is just unbelievable to say that he has been world No 1 for so long (349 weeks, 200 consecutive). To come day in, day out... every week to play Superseries finals, it is just impossible, to be honest. I think his body was something else. At any given point of time in the match, he was never tired.
These two were just once in a generation athletes.
The 2011 World Championships final in London... I think that is one of my favourite matches between Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan (Lin won 20–22, 21–14, 23–21). Probably one of the most exciting matches which they had played at that stage and I keep watching it now also, like whenever I get time.
I couldn’t have too many interactions with them unfortunately. If there were chances obviously, I would have sat down and asked a lot of questions. Oh, but there’s a small kind of a conversation with Lin Dan I remember. Just before our French Open meeting and we were getting ready for the match, standing in the tunnel. And then Lin Dan said to me, ‘Can I use your racket? Can I just check it out?’
And I was like ‘okay, this is the best time to ask for his racket!’ Because I knew he had a custom-made racket for himself. I was 100% sure. And man, it was something else. The grip size was so thick, like you can’t get it in the market. And it was extremely heavy. It felt like a gada (mace) only!
I remember trying to copy a lot of times Lin Dan’s style because he used to put a tape on his racket-head a few years back, to make the racket heavier. And I remember when I also have done that in the past, where I taped the racket on the top, and that actually helped because that used to actually increase the racket-head weight.
My first wins against them
The first one was against Lin Dan at the 2015 French Open. I remember that match well, because that was a very good quality contest. He was not letting things go easily. It was a tough one for me to tackle. As I said, in our first meeting I was a fanboy. But the second time is when I realised that as a professional player, you’ve just got to go out there to win. And it might be through aggression, it might be through any means, at the end of the day a win is a win. I think that’s where I started to play a little bit more aggressive, started to show that I’m also here to win. That win a changed a lot of equations for me as such, and my body started reacting well. It was a big victory for me to be honest, because I never expected that to happen.
With Chong Wei, the first win came at Indonesia Open 2017 and he wasn’t looking that great in that tournament. I felt the second time when I defeated him, it was a very good match (21-17, 11-21, 21-19 at Denmark Open) The shuttle was very fast, it was flying. But that day, I felt that I could really play one of my best games.
It gave me a lot of opportunities, those wins. A lot of people started to know me after these two big victories, because the end of the day it was Chong Wei and Lin Dan. Not everybody was able to beat them. It was big news at that time. That gave a lot of praise for me in my career. I will alway cherish those.
As a Taufik fan...
I am personally a Taufik fan. It wasn’t just the backhand. The beauty of his game. It wasn’t just one shot. For me it was something like what (Lionel) Messi does in football. It is like how you don’t have an answer to ‘why you like Messi’, but when he starts playing then you feel that ‘okay, you want to watch football’. It was something like that for me with Taufik.
But yeah, Lin and Lee were physically far too ahead, they could just crush anybody that time. When you look at Taufik, yes he was physically good, but it was his shot quality that drew me. Of course, he could keep playing that backhand from anywhere. Wherever he wants to, the shuttle used to chup-chap go there. We still can’t do that! In the top 10 even now, I don’t see see anybody doing that backhand like Taufik. I remember going into all this Under-13 and Under-16 tournaments, seeing these clippings and then trying to replicate. I did it for a long time. I was a mad fan.
But for sure, growing up, having these two names on the badminton circuit... everybody knew Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei. Two guys who gave everything they had to badminton. I don’t think there can be any replacements also. They had such a big rivalry which was very healthy for the sport, to be honest. Like (Roger) Federer and (Rafael) Nadal. It made a lot of people watch the sport, they gave that big leverage for the sport in that 2000 to 2010 period.
That legacy... whenever they were on court, people watched. It’s not easy to have that legacy for 20 years for such a highly physical sport. I mean, it’s insanely tough. I’m sure not just me, but millions of people have obviously been inspired by these two. And I hope they come back to the sport in some way and they remain active.
Dominant on court, a rebel off it: Lin Dan will be remembered as badminton’s biggest superstar
Lee Chong Wei: A near-perfect specimen of a badminton player