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Saturday, March 06, 2021

Dan there was none: Legendary shuttler calls it a day

Retirement of badminton’s greatest player, Lin Dan, leaves a void as an era of excellence ends.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai |
Updated: July 5, 2020 9:13:10 am
badminton Lin Dan called time on his career on Saturday. (File Photo/Reuters)

For 142 long, deluded weeks before the London Olympics, Lin Dan allowed Lee Chong Wei to sit on top of the world as No.1, hoping for his own stab at greatness when the Games fetched up. Dan, in fact, strung him along till 19-all in the third in the final.

Then in one smooth move — or three — of a prowling jungle cat, the Chinese reigning champion, gently pulled the rug from under the Malaysian’s feet to lord over the big moment of reckoning — not for the first time in his career, nor the last.

Badminton’s greatest men’s singles player, the unanimously beloved Chinese, anointed Super Dan at Wembley by Peter Gade (another World No.1 bereft of the Olympics gold) after his first All England triumph in 2004, called time on his career on Saturday after pain and (diminishing) physical abilities won the inevitable battle against perseverance for the ageing 37-year-old.

Chong Wei is the original perseverer; the greatest and first amongst unequals shown this chimera by Lin Dan, whose extraordinariness lay in dangling the chance of a win before his opponents before pouncing at victory every single time. At Beijing in 2008, Chong Wei had been packed off in 40 odd minutes, the savagery of 21-8, 21-12 loss sparing him protracted heartbreak.

Dan courted badminton greatness by loyally chasing big occasions, and turned inducing these dramatic disappointments in Chong Wei’s life, into fine art.

Two World Championship finals at London (2011) and Guangzhou (2013) on either side of the 2012 Olympics title came in similar drawn out, teasing fashion, elevating badminton to extravagant opera. Finals that could’ve gone either way, but Lin Dan insisting on stamping his class on every finish to build the legend of his dominance. For there came five World Championships, two Olympic titles, six All England’s, 66 tournament victories and 666 career wins including a clutch of team titles in Thomas and Sudirman Cup as well as the Asiad, to headline shuttle’s most successful career.

Nearing the end of his 20-year-long career, Super Dan had 9 first-round losses in 19 matches in the last year to be dubbed ‘First Round Lin’. At the 2016 Rio Games, he even lost the semis to old nemesis Chong Wei and returned without a medal, like in Athens. A bunch of upstarts from around the world now fancied their chances against him, though he casually made the 2017 World Championship and 2018 All England finals to show he hadn’t completely lost his aura.

“Every forceful jump was a desire for victory. I have dedicated everything to this sport I love,” he announced on Weibo. The postponement of Olympics owing to Covid, had meant he would’ve needed to labour another season to leapfrog Chen Long and Shi Yuqi to reach Tokyo, though he had been training in right earnest — at the same facility as China’s fastest sprinter, to keep up his speed.

READ | Lin Dan, Chong Wei’s bad penny

His past two seasons had seemed propelled by sponsor’s nudges, though you would be a fool to ignore preps of a man who in the lead-up to one of his Olympic titles ran under the blazing sun at noon in high temperatures to bolster his capacity.

Also having broken free from China’s national training system, he had once defiantly declared after winning one of his last titles, “All the Chinese coaches are sitting there in the corner. And I want to prove to them that even if I am 33, I, Lin Dan, can still win.” But that was after a successful decade and half of being nurturedly leashed to the regimented Chinese system.

Dan arrived on the scene as a junior World champion, highly touted after wins as a teenager in Korea and Denmark, but with a big booming flashy game that predictably didn’t pay the dividends early on.

Beijing would prove to be the start of the Super Dan epoch as a raucous home crowd matched his roaring bloodlust for his first Olympic title.

As such, Dan’s game can be clearly demarcated into pre-and-post Beijing: an outrageously attacking lefthander to start with making use of his exceptionally quick arm speed till 2008 to cutting down pace later and playing a stubbornly steady game to preserve his body for that blazing speed was unsustainable.

Dan had that spinning smash, hit hard and steep and a follow-up net shot where he was aggressive and would go on peppering opponent’s body line like a radar-guided missile to shred their defense. There was that impossible forehand clear where he would retrieve from the edge of the lines running back, dragging the shuttle back into play by sheer force of will, yet sending it back with such ferocity and precision that a defensive scramble turned into a winner deep into the rival’s backcourt.

All of that, shots seeming simple but pulled off after hours of training and strengthening the body as well as repurposed returns by taking the shuttle mighty late — found followers religiously attempting to ape his style. His shot armoury was Paris, New York and Milan fashion weeks rolled into one for setting trends, slavishly mimicked across the shuttle world. And though the 21-point system would’ve largely constricted his flair — one never knows what he could’ve done with his many round-the-body trick shots if the 15 or 11 point format was prevalent and he didn’t eschew flash – there was yet another dimension to his game as a southpaw even if it didn’t look as pretty as Bao Chunlai’s or Lee Hyun Il’s.

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of his game was his economy of movements – a graph that Roger Federer traversed in another sport to prolong his magic. Chong Wei would be bouncing about, the length, breadth of the court and in the air above. Dan would return to the T like a horse unfailingly gallops into its barn, and barely exert himself more than what was needed.

Lin Dan , badminton player Lin Dan, Lin Dan retires, Shuttler Lan Dan retirement, China's Lin Dan 2019 Badminton World Championships – St. Jakobshalle Basel, Basel, Switzerland – August 20, 2019 China’s Lin Dan in action during his second round men’s singles match against India’s HS Prannoy REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/Files

For all his dominance spanning his career, Lin Dan rarely looked like he was stepping on the gas, to disintegrate his opponent. Unlike Chong Wei whose switch of gears was a visible hustle-bustle signalling a change in pace and bursting of nerve, Dan would ease into kill mode smoothly without a wrinkle on his visage. Former international Arvind Bhat recalls how Lin Dan would put in a full hour’s warmup of hitting with sparrers just before a match — drops, parallel, flicks, box, just knocking around and was seldom seen sitting in the crowd doing nothing before his games.

An introvert who rarely smiled — not out of arrogance but from staying manically focussed — Dan remained China’s elusive genius, not very talkative even after winning his big titles. After winning the world title at Hyderabad in 2009, he would come into the media room donning a Shaquille O’Neal tee — a mere change of shirt for him, as he would look befuddled when asked about the NBA star.

But badminton’s famous four — Dan, Chong Wei, Peter Gade and Taufiq Hidayat — had a world of their own and in their own classy way, they went about taking the game to unprecedented heights in quality, even if they were all far too reticent (or cool) to get chatty about smashes in English and open up their world to a larger base. Though comparable to tennis’ Big Four, the shuttle quartet never tried too hard to stake claim to a similar space (maybe to the game’s detriment). But for those who followed a feathery bird mangled magically by four sorcerers of that era, the enchantment was self-sufficient. Chong Wei turned poet at Dan’s departure from international badminton when he tweeted, “Your final wave …all four disappear…Within the hush of silent tear.”

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