It was inevitable. For all the superpowers and wizardry he possessed, Lin Dan was not getting any younger. The badminton legend had to one day hang his racquet and walk into the sunset to start a life away from the court that he dominated for almost two decades.
He would have loved that to happen at the grandest of sporting stages, with another shot at Olympic glory at the 2020 Tokyo Games. In fact, he had spelled out that ambition time and again over the last few years for that to be the case even if form suggested otherwise.
But with the quadrennial extravaganza pushed back by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty over his possible qualification, the 36-year-old announced his retirement on Saturday. For badminton, it is the end of an era.
Badminton has witnessed dominant men’s singles player in the past; those who treated that 20 feet by 44 feet area as if it was their fiefdom and no one could challenge their authority there. The likes of Rudi Hartono, Liem Swie King, Morten Frost were world beaters in their own right during their eras.
By any measurable standard, Lin Dan was one of a kind. He is a five-time world champion and the only two-time Olympics men’s singles gold medallist. Whether he was the greatest of all time is a difficult debate, as with any other sport, because comparing players of different generations is fraught with subjectivity and recency bias.
But there is no denying the fact that the man nicknamed Super Dan, was the sport’s biggest superstar. He pulled in crowds, had a “bad boy” reputation during his younger days, and forced even the authoritative Chinese system to bend its rules as he could get away with temper tantrums on the court more often than not.
It is said that Lin Dan’s mother wanted him to become a pianist but he was determined to become a badminton player after taking up the sport at the age of five. In a glorious career that lasted two decades, he went on to mesmerise his fans with the rhythm of his movements and the simplicity of his execution.
He dominated all major competitions from 2004 to 2013, winning five world championship titles, back-to-back Olympic golds in 2008 and 2012, Asian Games and Asian championship golds.
He is, in fact, the only player in the history of the sport to complete a ‘Super Grand Slam’ by winning all nine major titles in world badminton: Olympics, World Championships, World Cup, Thomas Cup, Sudirman Cup, Super Series Masters Finals, All England Open, Asian Games and Asian Championships.
What made Lin Dan great
There was a rustic elegance in the way he moved on the court with measured strides and one was left wondering how he could always connect the shuttle so perfectly when most of his opponents looked far quicker on their feet. The only time he would rise from that state of slumber was to unleash those precise jump smashes that showcased the brute physical strength he possessed.
Most often, Lin would depend on his strong forearms, excellent reading of the game and deception to keep his opponents on their toes.
Lin, however, insisted that he was far from a genius and it was the hard work that he put in during training and competition, adding that it was the efforts of his coaching and support team that allowed him to reap the rewards.
“Not just me. None of the Chinese players are geniuses. But everyday they practice very hard. Chinese athletes make more efforts than any other national athletes,” he had told this reporter ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
He almost called it a day after becoming the only badminton player to retain the Olympic gold in London and stayed away from competition for over nine months before he was handed a wild card for the 2013 World Championship in Guangzhou.
Lin returned to the courts a few months before the world championship and went on to clinch his fifth world title, beating his arch-rival and friend Lee Chong Wei in a controversial summit clash which the latter forfeited citing cramps with the Chinese star just one point away from victory.
However, the man who finished with 666 career wins and 66 titles, preferred to pick and choose tournaments to peak. Chong Wei, in comparison, went on a rampage winning a total of 46 Superseries titles in his career and was ranked world No 1 for a consecutive 199 weeks from August 21, 2008 to June 14, 2012.
But more than the titles he won or the mechanical precision in his game, which many of the Chinese greats in the past have possessed, what probably built the cult of Lin Dan was his non-conformist approach and ability to challenge the system if he felt he was right in doing so.
In 2008, he reportedly punched his own coach during a media day event and famously got into a verbal spat with the South Korean coach during the Korean Open final against local hope Lee Hyun-Il in January the same year.
Last year, he forfeited a first round match at the Singapore Open against Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen after arguing over a line call.
Off the court, he was the only player to get certain concessions from the Chinese badminton association, be it in his personal or professional life. He proudly sported tattoos despite his former employers – People’s Liberation Army of China – not encouraging body art.
Over the years, Lin became the face of many commercials. But it was his decision to shift to Yonex in 2014 when the national team was sponsored by Li Ning that underlined his popularity and special status in the country. The Chinese association ended up making an exemption for him to use the Japanese equipment makers shoes and racquets in tournaments despite representing the national squad.
Walking off into the sunset
Despite the rise of the young generation of players including Chen Long, Shi Yuqi and many others, Lin continued to be an integral part of the Chinese set up and went on to win a world championship silver in 2017.
In the 18 years since he won the Korea Open title back in 2002 to kick-start his run, Lin had won at least one title every year. But it was clear in the way he was decimated by Axelsen in the 2017 world championship final and during his subsequent losses against lesser-known players in 2018 and 2019 that the Chinese great wasn’t the force he once was.
But like any champion player, he wanted to go out on his own terms and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was widely considered to be his possible swansong. Even his biggest critiques would have wanted to see him reenact that poetry on the badminton court one last time.
Even if the Olympic Games had been held on schedule, one wonders if Lin Dan would have got that shot at glory. In the Race to Tokyo list (when the season came to an abrupt halt in March due to the coronavirus pandemic), he was the third-highest ranked Chinese player, while only two players per country are allowed.
As things stand, Lin is expected to continue playing in the Chinese National League and, maybe, could even feature in the Premier Badminton League in the near future if he extends his association with Yonex after this year.
But for now, its time to cherish the moments of brilliance he displayed during his two-decade long career and give the most decorated player in the history of world badminton a standing ovation.
(Clarification: Lin Dan retired from the army’s badminton club in 2015. The article has been updated to reflect that the People’s Liberation Army of China were his former employers.)