Malaysia’s Daren Liew has lived in the shadow of Lee Chong Wie for a good part of his career. The only title of note Liew has won is the French Super Series. Earlier this year, he was sidelined for three months following a knee injury and at one point uncertainty loomed over his participation in the Thomas Cup. But the Malaysian badminton mandarins placed their faith in him and named him skipper of their Thomas Cup squad.
Till the finals, the responsibility of captaincy seemed to have weighed heavily on Liew’s shoulders. He lost his third singles to his Indian and German counterparts and was dropped for the tie against Korea.
But on Sunday, in the fifth and final match of the Thomas Cup against Japan’s Takuma Ueda, Liew was on the cusp of redemption after fighting back to level scores at one game all. Liew cut out the errors that had cost him the first game to restore parity. However, when it most mattered Liew allowed the errors to creep in again and lost his nerve while Ueda held his to become the hero.
Like Liew, Ueda has had a modest career but after the 21-12, 18-21, 21-17 win in the fifth match, which gave Japan their maiden Thomas Cup title, he will attain folk hero-like status.
However, it was heart break for the iconic Lee as he once again finished a bridesmaid in a major tournament. The last time Malaysia had entered the final of the Thomas Cup 14 years ago, the reigning world No.1 Lee was not part of the squad. It has taken over a decade for Malaysia’s greatest badminton player to take his country within a five-match tie of winning the prestigious men’s team championships.
The three Thomas Cup bronze medals that the Malaysian men’s team won in 2006, 2008 and 2010 have been the badge of honour that the proud badminton nation has had to show since Lee emerged as a force. For all his genius, even the staunchest Malaysian supporters would admit that Lee has been a king without a crown after losing two Olympic finals and as many World Championship titles to China’s Lin Dan.
At Thomas Cup this year, it appeared that Japanese had removed a major stumbling block in Malaysia’s path by pulling off a stunning victory over China in the semifinal.
This pitted Lee and Kenichi Tago, the World No.1 and No.4 respectively in the first singles of the final. Though just two places separated the two in terms of rankings, Lee had a 15-1 head-to-head record before Sunday’s opening match.
The flying visit of the Malaysian sports minister Khairy Jamaluddin to New Delhi in order to be at courtside highlighted the significance of the final. A last-minute decision of the satellite rights holder to waive off broadcast fees to the state-owned television network allowed Malaysians back home to be transfixed on the action at the Siri Fort Complex.
Lee did not disappoint. He was as clinical as he was brilliant in the 21-12, 21-16 win. However, the perfect start didn’t guarantee a smooth progression for Malaysia. The Japanese recovered from the opening loss. The first doubles, a 76-minute slugfest, helped Japan even the scoreline. Kento Momota made it 2-1 in Japan’s favour when he breezed past Wei Feng Chond in two games but the Malaysian pair of V Shem Goh and Wee Kiong Tan forced the final into a fifth match.