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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lee Chong Wei - All the best!

Lee Chong Wei leaping for the shuttle [Source: Lurker, Badminton Forum]

Two Lees will be battling it out in tonight's Finals. Two Lees who are both students of Li Mao. Two Lees who have beaten Lin Dan before. One is a right-hander; the other - a southpaw. Two Lees and no less. But only one Lee will emerge victorious. Only one Lee will win the 2008 Malaysian Open Super-series event. Lee Chong Wei or Lee Hyun Il.

5 years ago, I had the fabulous opportunity to watch both Lees play at the Likas Sports Complex, Kota Kinabalu. I went there with my father and younger sis. Ma stayed at home because I think she could not 'tahan' (stand) the pressure.

The quarter-final kept us on the edges of our seats. It was a rare chance to see 3 representatives from Malaysia playing at the same time on four courts. Wong Choon Han, Yeoh Kay Bin and Lee Chong Wei were all playing. Actually Yeoh Kay Bin put up a courageous fight against the invincible Chen Hong, who was world number one at that time. Wong Choon Han, who was Malaysia's number one singles player at that time, outclassed Indonesia's Sony Dwi Kuncoro. Lee Chong Wei was playing against China's tall and lanky Bao Chunlai on the next court and that was probably the match of the day for all of the spectators. The game stretched to 3 sets (9-15, 15-13, 15-11). We were cheering for Wong and Lee one after another whenever they won a point. And after Wong finished his game, all of us shifted our full attention to Lee's match.

Lee Chong Wei always reminded me of the schoolboy style of playing then. I mean, I have seen schoolboys during my time playing that style. So I associated his style with the schoolboy style. He did not have a lot power in his game and was not the attacking type. He looked so frail and skinny you think those players from China and Europe would crush him in a single blow. Yet he played with a lot of intelligence and executed his crafty game very well. And cheered on by the home supporters, he fought like a warrior. His retrieval skills were already quite evident then. Midway through the game, Bao was obviously losing his nerve. He did everything he could but Lee amazingly threw everything back at him. And so, this victory would become the first of the seven consecutive wins over Bao. I predicted that Lee Chong Wei would one day become a top player then.

Today, his game is so different from yesteryears. I think he is a very complete player already, with the exception of Taufik Hidayat, of course. Nonetheless, the badminton world would be less interesting without Lee Chong Wei. After training under Li Mao, his game improved in terms of speed and power. His smashes are power-packed nowadays and some say he is probably the fastest player around, probably faster than world number one, Lin Dan. After Li Mao left for Korea, Lee asked to have Misbun Sidek to be his coach - again. Yes, although Misbun has been known to be controversial as a player in his days and sometimes not very popular with the fans, he is instrumental to bringing up many top players in Malaysia (e.g. Wong Mew Choo).

After a slow start last year for Lee, he began to pick up his pace, winning tournaments and was back to the top of the ladder again. He seemed to be playing differently - he seemed calmer. In fact, after he won his first tournament, he said the reason for the resurgence in his career was because he found inner peace. He is now the Zen master of badminton. Still, he can crack, like he did when he lost to Indonesia's Sony at last year's World Championship held on home ground at the Bukit Jalil Sports Complex. By now, the whole badminton community probably knows about his emotional outburst immediately after the defeat. Lee is well-known for his humble nature and professional attitude. So this incident came as a surprise to many of us. Indeed, there is a lot of pressure being the number one player in Malaysia.

Although I personally find that he is rather camera-shy (maybe it distracts his pre- and post-match thoughts), I like the fact that he is very focus in his matches. He will do his best in every tournament and almost always delivers. He is now world number two, after Lin Dan. After following so many matches involving Malaysians, I think he is probably the most reliable player around of all time (modern times).

Tonight, I hope he will not disappoint us in this outing. He is the nation's last hope. Last year's edition was won by the popular Dane - Peter Gade Christiansen. He came down with a bad fever on his way to Malaysia and almost did not compete. This year, Lee was also sick. Hopefully this is a good sign, hahahaha. Even if he doesn't win, he still deserve all Malaysians' hearts for coming this far. It is not easy making a comeback, after experiencing some bad confidence-busting episode. Lee's nightmare probably started around the time he finally lost to Bao. Malaysia's other singles player, Kuan Beng Hong, lost to Denmark's Joachim Persson in the last Thomas Cup event, and never quite recover since then. Another player, Hafiz Hashim, famous for being the most recent Malaysian winner of the coveted All England prize, is still struggling with himself.

Or perhaps tonight's match will be interesting because it will be a match of the Master vs the student. One Li and one Lee. Since Li Mao has been coaching Lee Chong Wei before, he will know Lee's character and play very, very well. Regardless, we badminton fans all hope for an exciting game. So far, it seems there is no major problem with line judging. We all want to see a fair and inspiring game. So let's hope it will stay that way.

Here's one of his matches against Bao played in France lasat year. Watch his deceptive cross-court net flick just before the match point [7:53]. It left Bao scratching his head.

P.S. Watch Malaysian Open 2008 live here.