Quiet and unassuming, Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei retired on Thursday after a 19-year career with a plot like a soap opera, including a doping ban and a frightening brush with cancer.

“My decision to retire is a heavy one. I really love this sport. But it is a demanding sport. I thank all Malaysians for the past 19 years,” Lee, 36, told a news conference.

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

Lee’s decision to walk away at the age of 36 robs badminton of one of its biggest draws and ends his rivalry with China’s Lin Dan, his nemesis in four world and Olympic finals.

Lee, who spent 348 weeks as world number one and once held the record for the fastest smash, retired after failing to regain full fitness following his successful treatment for nose cancer last year.

Lin posted to his four million followers on China’s Twitter-like Weibo: “I will be alone on the (badminton) court and no one will accompany me.”

He also posted a link to a Chinese ballad called “Friends Don’t Cry”.

“Lin Dan and myself are rivals in the court but outside the court, we are close friends,” Lee said when asked about their rivalry.

“I hope Lin Dan will play in the Tokyo Olympics. But he faces challenges from younger players.”

The badminton community was full of praise for the retiring legend:

(With AFP inputs)