You don’t need to be good friends to be excellent doubles partners, Korean doubles legend and former Olympic champion, Lee Yong-dae says, horrified at the thought. His former doubles partner Yoo Yeon-seong – with whom he reached World No.1 status in 2014 – agrees.
The duo jammed sensationally on court, but never bothered to agree off it. What’s friendship got to do with success, they wonder, speaking separately over the course of the Premier Badminton League, and turning some mushy, assumptions on their head.
“Your minds need to be tuned to play a certain pattern at important junctures in a match. You don’t need to be friends at all; in fact it’s very difficult to be friends,” Yeon-seong says. “Friendship means you’ll start caring and then people get too sensitive. In fact you should never be sentimentally close to your playing partners,” he adds.
Yong-dae has earlier joked that the very idea of playing doubles is not seeing eye-to-eye; i.e knowing where the partner is stationed and moving without having to glance behind at every rally-exchange. “You just need game understanding. I don’t even like looking at my partners on court! They are team-mates only on court. When travelling, outside of the court is our own individual personal time,” he says.
India’s doubles sagas in tennis and badminton are well documented, and while equations get mighty tangled in their part of the world, Korean masters of the game, preach detachment. Yong-dae, who won gold at Beijing in mixed and bronze in men’s doubles at London, is now attempting another Olympic qualification after returning from retirement, pairing with junior Kim Gi-jung.
His return made Page 1 news in Korea where shuttle’s doubles pairings are adored as much as KPop groups; disbanding is par for the course, but not always viewed as acrimonious.Yong-dae ofcourse evoked emotions as strong as the KPop groups did, in his prime. Not only was he following in the footsteps of Korea’s spectacularly rewarding doubles haul (the country boasts 7 of 22 Olympic men’s doubles medals since 1992 – that’s a third of the total), his pin-up looks and rakish charm made him wildly popular amongst women and children.
Spectators are said to have thronged stadiums to squeal when he changed his soaking shirt, though doubles enjoys a mass hysteria in Korea that goes way back, and boasts legends like Park Joo-bong, Kim Dong-moon, Ha Tae-kwon and Lee Dong-soo – each of whom are double Olympic medallists and mostly kept their shirts on.
“Doubles is more enjoyable to play and we just have so many Olympic champions. The popularity is the same as (the nation’s other obsession) KPop,” Dong-yae says, adding that the skill-set of power, speed, net-play and dizzy drives, is held in highest respect. It goes beyond the reductive understanding of the discipline: manning half the court, where unfortunate singles players dawdle towards.
“Choosing doubles is a clear aim in Korea as Olympic gold is our expected standard. We don’t ‘end up’ there as singles rejects. Coaches pick the best players, pair them up, and noone objects for frivolous reasons like incompatibility. The respect comes from superior skills,” Dong-yae, who started like most others in Grade 3 (age 10), says.
While Korean singles shuttlers always looked China-wards as they attempted to match the supremacy of their doubles pairings, Korea’s doubles couples was dazzled by Indonesians with whom they built many memorable rivalries. Moreover, as a mature badminton nation which sets a lot of store on winning team events like Thomas and Sudirman Cup, doubles sat in prominence above any of the singles stars.
While Dong-yae attracts young fans in India – owing to his attacking play, someone like Yeon-seong has a niche cult following from most of India’s singles stars. He turned out for North East in the PBL this season, but Indians Saina, Sindhu, Srikanth, Kashyap, across teams are massive fans marvelling at his low, crouching defensive play and smooth control over the shuttle even as the tall man bends low and directs the shuttle like a wizard with a wand.
He counts KPop stars among his friends, and the badminton doubles-KPop twinning isn’t too different from the Bollywood-cricket friendships that mushroom in India.The love for doubles though, runs deep. It’s evident in the instant connect that a shuttler like Hyderabad’s Kim Sa-rang establishes at every PBL venue.
Playing his first game at Mumbai last month, the rotund shuttler who winks away post-training stretches now in his twilight career years, craves court-collaborators who can keep the mood light and put on an acrobatic show. “People enjoy doubles,” he says about a system that is known to heap plenty of pressure on players to win team events, enjoying not being a high priority. He’s a livewire at the net and his face is a dozen frames of animation like a Maori immersed in a haka, when he celebrates, taking the crowd along.
A pelvic surgery pushed him into doubles where he succeeded, though he grew up fascinated by the paired legend Chandra Wijayan. “His drives were breathless, and the speed raised my pulse rate,” he recalls a childhood, that aped every movement of the Indonesian.
Ask the legends about what India needs to get better at doubles and it throws up a range of answers. “Domestic competition among Korean pairs is high, and sparring is intense. Indians Satwiksairaj and Chirag have good strength and power, but need more experience,” Sa-Rang says.
Yong-dae while stressing on the importance of speed adds that doubles coaching is highly technical and effortlessness needs a lot of laborious practice hours.
Yong-dae himself is known to enter a training session at 10 am and stay focussed till 11.59, meticulous about his warm-up and limber-downs, often training against a wall and getting the shuttle to act like a squash ball. These are pickled techniques, retaining their flavour long after he’s slipped into his 30s.
Exempted from Korea’s military conscription only after he won gold at Asiad and medal at Olympics, Yong-dae believes that his time away as a privileged civilian is spent monkishly training every second he’s on court, never taking it easy.
“Satwik has good power and Chirag is quick, but they need to discipline their mind because the top level needs focus and commitment that’s much, much more. They need to be told they have a long way to go, and guided along the way,” Yong-dae says, of India’s newest pairing that’s raised hopes in India. Seamless combinations work long hours on combinations, he says, and there’s no time nor need for friendship to be in that heady mix of breathtakingly speedy zig-zag art these Korean artists sketch on court.