When Lee Chong Wei was knocked out in the first round of the 2017 World Championship, no one would have thought that it would be the last appearance of the Malaysian at the tournament he was desperate to win along with the Olympic gold.
It was his 10th appearance in the marquee event, in which he had three runners up medals to show for, and the pressure of winning the elusive title clearly showed in the way the former world number played that day in Glasgow.
“I never give up, I keep trying again,” he had said in the post match media conference and looked determined not to hang his racquet till he found a way to win the two major titles.
He did not give up even after being diagnosed with nose cancer around July last year as he went to Chinese Taipei to complete his treatment, away from the preying eyes of the media and fans back home, and tried to make a comeback several times in the last few months only to be overruled by his doctors.
But with the possibility of making it to the Japanese capital was decreasing with every passing day as his ranking dropped and his health issues continued to affect his recovery and preparation, Chong Wei finally decided to give up and pull curtains over his illustrious career.
And so one of the best badminton players of the current era will hang his racquet without the two gold medals that many believed he deserved.
Mind you, it’s no mean feat to reach three Olympic finals as it means the player has been at his peak for at least 12 years. The numbers prove that part unequivocally. During his 19-year-long badminton career, the Malaysian was ranked number one for 348 weeks, including a consecutive 199 weeks at the top from August 2008 to June 2012.
He also tops the list of most number of Superseries titles with a tally of 46 with Lin Dan a distant second at 21 and Chen Long at 20.
But more than the numbers, it was the way he played badminton that mesmerised his opponents and fans. Though not very strongly built in terms of height and weight like a Chen Long or a Chen Jin, Chong Wei’s biggest weapon was his speed and explosive power.
Chong Wei once held the record for the fastest smash and the numerous deceptions he was capable of playing due to his lightning fast moments always kept his opponents on their toes.
But ask any player about what frustrated them the most while playing Chong Wei and they would invariably speak about how it was extremely difficult to find a way past him for a winner.
When the Malaysian started on the senior international circuit, he was predominantly a defensive player who relied on his reflexes to keep the shuttle in play. But since 2008-09, he started becoming a lot more attacking and slowly but surely built a repertoire of strokes that made him a modern-day great.
It was largely possible thanks to the economy of movement and perfect body balance that came naturally to him. But the way, Chong Wei went on to build on those strengths with high-quality training should be a template for many budding shuttlers.
The simplest example of Chong Wei’s superior physical abilities can be seen in the way he dealt with the opponent’s smashes. In modern-day badminton almost all the top singles players are adept at diving to return the jump smashes but the Malaysian could manage to throw in two consecutive dives in opposing directions or even find a way to hit an overhead winner on the follow up stroke thanks to his ability to quickly get on his feet without losing his balance.
And unlike the 35-year-old Lin Dan, who picked and chose tournaments to peak since the 2012 London Olympics, Chong Wei had the strength and endurance to maintain the same level of play week after week on the BWF circuit, making him the darling of the tournament organisers.
It was a treat to watch Chong Wei in full flow as he knew how to play to the galleries while being in complete control of the proceedings, except in the summit clashes of the Olympic Games and World Championship.
He probably came the closest in the 2011 World Championship final in London where he squandered two championship points against Lin Dan and who knows if he could have converted even one of them, history could have been a lot kinder to him.
Two years later in China he conceded the final against Lin Dan, who was given a wild card, complaining of cramps while trailing 17-20 in the decider. It is said that the organisers had switched off the air conditioner midway in the second game and the Malaysian took time to adjust to the change in flight of the shuttle and needed a lot more effort to stay in the match.
But the biggest blot on his CV has been the 2014 doping controversy which saw him serve an eight-month ban after the authorities were convinced that the Malaysian had taken the drug inadvertently to treat an injury and not with an “intent to cheat”.
So what would Chong Wei be remembered as?
A world number one who could never win the big titles or a genius who kept the fans glued to their seats with his skills and instilled fear in his opponent’s hearts.
There is a case for being a bit lenient on Chong Wei because his career also coincided with the genius of Lin Dan, who many believe is arguably the best badminton player across decades. While the Chinese was a magician with a racquet in hand, the Malaysian had reached this far by building a solid foundation and hard work.
But more than the loses against Lin Dan in major events — two each in the world championship and Olympic finals — the Malaysian’s reversals against Chen Long in the 2015 World Championship and Rio Olympics were clear examples of him succumbing to the pressure of expectations from his fans, who worshiped him as a demi-god back in Malaysia.
There is no doubt that Chong Wei was a near-perfect specimen of a badminton player but he also suffered from the frailties of common human beings and the way he was forced to exit the stage only reinforces this fact.