There was a nagging realisation every time Lin Dan primed himself for his overhead sorcery at Mumbai’s NSCI that this man ought to have been as universally adored as Roger Federer. Not only in Asia where connoisseurs do decipher his southpaw art, but across the world, which reserves such reverence for tennis and football stars.
Speaking at the Yonex Legends event which brought together badminton’s Beatles Taufik Hidayat, Peter Grade, Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei for exhibition games and an evening of interactions, Super Dan said even that had he not been a shuttler, he’d have loved to be a soccer star.
It was a stop-start stuttering evening with all the awkwardness of a first date. The sport has struggled to go beyond its predominantly Asian niche because its stars don’t offer wisecracks in English. They come from largely tightly controlled national programmes with all the Asian bashfulness when it comes to asserting highly individual personalities. The prize money never really attained tennis or golf’s levels, and it is only now that the sport is aiming to rejig its structure and elevate competition to hallowed Grand Slam levels.
The stakes might have been low to zilch. But the Legends event – brainchild of Peter Gade’s who knew his sport needed some aggressive proselytising – offered a glimpse into what badminton could offer if freed from the traditional clutches of Asia’s national team-system. Lee Chong Wei enjoys a stupendous following in Mumbai – the decibels when cheering for him perhaps pipped the obligatory ones for surprise guest Sachin Tendulkar who dropped by. For a bit that distraction had threatened to hijack NSCI, except it didn’t. Chong Wei and the new old heart-throb – doubles divinity Lee Yong Dae, kept the full-house packed with trainees of various Mumbai academies, firmly smitten by shuttle-tricks.
India’s Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand who kept the sport going till Saina Nehwal came along, were also honoured as Indian pathbreakers. And Gopichand would acknowledge that the era of Taufik, Gade, Chong Wei and Dan (his career was winding down when the awesome foursome started to rise) would be difficult to recreate owing to the sheer variety in styles and their interlinked rivalries.
Srikanth has been the toast of India since his four Super Series titles, but it took the legends to patiently explain how far a distance he had to cover before the racquet started feeling like an extension of his hand. The finesse, the effortlessness, the ease with which the five (Lee Yong Dae was the fifth Beatle) played the exhibition games pointed to what India could aspire for – not only medals or the tag of being India’s second best sport. But players like the famed Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian and Dane present on the day, who made the shot-making -where the shuttle magically pauses in the air as if levitating on command of the wand – second nature. There was a sophistry to the evolved games which even when Saina-Sindhu bt Chong Wei-Dan in a 5-pointer game, was instructive in how much the game needs to pickle here.
Badminton lacks the English (or Spanish) as it’s Lingua Franca, and even a rapid-fire interaction which could’ve evoked chuckles got deferred in translation. (Though we gathered that Prakash Padukone is a Madhuri Dixit fan, Gade makes wine and barbecue, Chong Wei’s favourite is yellow and Dan is called Taan Taan at home). In the end though, the legends and their fans settled into familiar homes – the five unwrapping tricks on court (including Taufik’s brat show like lifting the net to draw an error and sipping water even before the point is over, and Lin Dan letting the shuttle bounce off his torso) and the audience happy to be tricked and treated by the heroes.
Badminton might lack the reach of tennis, but the legends have fetched up just in time – letting their hair loose too – to peek out of their shells and dazzle like precious pearls.