Lee Chong Wei feared his career was over in a freak accident which tore his knee ligament during badminton practice last month. Then the world No. 1 thought he’d be out for six weeks and miss the All England Open, which he has won three times.
But so desperate was he not to miss it that in just over three weeks he was passed fit to compete. Still in some pain and not quite 100 percent fit, he starts his 13th and last All England on Wednesday.
There was a collective gasp in Malaysia on Feb. 4 when news came that Chong Wei slipped and fell, tearing the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The ligament attaches the top of the shinbone to the bottom of the thigh bone. It normally takes 42 days to heal.
But 23 days later, he passed a second scan on the knee, and a day later his doctor and coaches agreed he could oblige his top seeding in Birmingham.
“I’ll just need to prepare myself mentally,” he says.
The start of his farewell season has been far from ideal all round. His injury exposed year-long discontent with Morten Frost, the Hall of Famer from Denmark who has been the technical director of the Badminton Association of Malaysia for two years.
On the day the national squad moved into the new national academy, one of Chong Wei’s teammates slipped and fell on court mats. Chong Wei told his coaches to tell Frost the mats needed to be replaced. Four days later, Chong Wei injured himself. The next day, mats on three of the 18 courts were replaced.
Chong Wei blamed Frost for failing to take action sooner, and accused him of being more concerned about when he was retiring than his health. “I’m hurt,” Chong Wei said.
More accusations prompted a public backlash that Chong Wei was being uncharacteristically egotistic. But he said he’d kept silent about Frost at the request of his coach Hendrawan. The feud played out in the media for days until Chong Wei said his relationship with Frost was beyond repair, and he threatened to quit BAM.
Frost solved the drama by proposing a special squad featuring Chong Wei and five other male players, to be handled alone by Hendrawan. Frost would no longer deal with Chong Wei, and continue with the rest of the national squad. The arrangement is to be reviewed in August after the world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, after which Chong Wei is expected to retire.
The move is geared mainly to giving Chong Wei one final shot at glory. He’s lost the final of the last three Olympics, and the last four world championships.
Defeat has been kind, though. He has been world player of the year five times, and received numerous awards, titles, and military rankings in Malaysia.
Another regret is that at 35, he is still Malaysia’s best player. Nobody at home can touch him. After 18 years in the national squad, he thought someone would rise to challenge him.
“I admit age is no longer on my side, but I have never let it weaken my spirit,” Chong Wei told The Star newspaper in Malaysia last month.
“I still don’t have any major title to my name, and that is what strengthens my resolve to at least win the world title in Glasgow in August. This is what motivates me to continue playing. I will know when my time is up. Trust me.”
This last hurrah brings him to the All England. He likes his draw. In the semifinals he could meet Chen Long, who beat him for the Olympic gold; then perhaps a fourth All England final with his great nemesis Lin Dan.
His first-round match will be against French qualifier Brice Leverdez, who beat Chong Wei in the Denmark Open quarterfinals in October.
Last year, Chong Wei was on a 21-match winning streak when he lost in the first round. The unheralded Indian lost his next match, but Chong Wei endured his earliest defeat in nine years, and failed for only the second time to reach the semifinals. Another loss like that on Wednesday won’t be as stunning as last year. His expectations are much lower.
“I’m coming back from a knee injury,” he says. “It’ll be a challenge to get that tournament feeling again.”