Dubai: At most times, the loose usage of the word ‘legend’ tends to quite bother me.
Hence, when former two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan announced his exit from the Chinese national badminton team last week, it was a good opportunity to put things in perspective as far as a sportsman’s greatness goes.
It was September 29 and it was the men’s singles badminton final at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. The hugely Chinese crowd had long filled up the Gyeyang Gymnasium indoor arena making it tough for even the media personnel to enter and witness, what was to be, another great final between two of China’s greatest – Lin Dan and Chen Long.
“Lin will win it easy,” a Korean journalist muttered as we managed to use his ‘influence’ and get into the crammed up arena.
For the record, Lin did win, although in three well-contested games to add yet another title to his name. But what I witnessed that afternoon left an indelible mark on me - proving to me perhaps why he was considered one of the greatest badminton players of our generation.
Lin lost the first game easily. But once he got started, there was no stopping him as he cruised rather easily in the second and third to win his second gold medal at an Asian Games. What I saw on display was his mental toughness, his stamina to go for every shot, his discipline, intelligence and his ability to mentally wear down his opponent.
Lin Dan was a left-hander. The words of another great sportsman Roger Federer come to mind when the Swiss legend had time and again insisted on his difficulty in tackling left-handed tennis players during the course of his career.
And just like the Swiss master, Lin Dan’s impact on badminton will be hard to measure accurately.
He’s a player who rose and grew fast in his sport with his outstanding skills and match-winning ability. These were qualities that have stood by him making Lin an icon as he drew in audiences around the world. As a big-game player, Lin set benchmarks that will be difficult, if not impossible, to emulate any time soon.
Winner of Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012 along with another five World Championships titles, Lin undoubtedly stands out as possibly the most accomplished men’s singles player of the post-2000 era.
A bronze medallist at the 2000 World Junior Championships - the other bronze went to a certain Lee Chong Wei, who was to become his closest rival – Lin shot up the ranks quickly, taking on the responsibility of leading China’s challenge from the country’s senior players such as Xia Xuanze and Chen Hong.
Lin didn’t have to wait for long as his rise was rewarded with a first All England title in 2004. Over the next one and a half decade, Lin raised expectations of matching the exploits of other legends, like Rudy Hartono (eight All England titles).
Like Hartono, Lin made 10 finals – the same as the Indonesian legend – and finished with six titles.
Consider this: there is no major tournament that he has not won, and at the same time, there’s no opponent that he has not overpowered.
He is, in fact, the only player in the history of the sport to complete a Super Grand Slam while winning all nine major titles in world badminton when he was only 28 years old – the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup, Thomas Cup, Sudirman Cup, Super Series Masters Finals, All England Open, Asian Games and Asian Championships.
And for lovers of mathematical symmetry, the 36-year-old finished with 666 career wins and 66 titles.
This is what, to my mind, is the stuff of legends.
Lin Dan’s major crowns
Olympic Games (2): Beijing 2008 and London 2012
World Championships (6): 5 (2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013)
All England Open (6): 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2016
Asian Games (2): 2010 Guangzhou and 2014 Incheon
Thomas Cup (6): 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2018