PUTRAJAYA (AFP) – Quiet and unassuming, Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei rose to become a modern badminton great, beloved by his fans despite his tantalising failures to bring home the biggest trophies of all.
The sinewy Lee, blessed with lightning reflexes, retired on Thursday after a 19-year career with a plot like a soap opera, including a doping ban and a frightening brush with cancer.
Lee’s decision to walk away at the age of 36 robs badminton of one of its biggest draws and ends his rivalry with China’s Lin Dan, his nemesis in four world and Olympic finals.
Lee, who spent 348 weeks as world number one and once held the record for the fastest smash, retired after failing to regain full fitness following his successful treatment for nose cancer last year.
The softly spoken player was long expected to land Malaysia’s first Olympic gold but he repeatedly stuttered in the final, losing the 2008, 2012 and 2016 deciders to Lin and fellow Chinese Chen Long.
He had an almost identical record at the world championships, losing twice to Lin and once to Chen in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
It means that despite 705 wins and 69 titles – including five Commonwealth Games gold medals, four All England victories and a record 47 Superseries triumphs – Lee’s career will be remembered for its disappointments.
In particular, his heart-breaking losses to Lin, now a close friend, at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics clearly wounded Lee.
His last shot at Olympic glory at Rio 2016 ended in a crushing failure when the Malaysian lost to Chen in a nail-biting final.
Worse happened off the court, however, when the then-world number one tested positive for a banned anti-inflammatory at the 2014 world championships.
Badminton authorities eventually accepted his explanation that he took the drug inadvertently during stem-cell treatment for a thigh injury.
The episode sidelined him for eight months, however, and he slid down the world rankings.
But Lee launched a gritty comeback after returning to the court in 2015, recapturing his form and the top ranking – only to suffer more Olympic heartbreak in Rio the following year.
Lee is famed for his intense training and has made clear his feverish desire for an Olympic gold during his gruelling workouts.
With a dazzling array of weapons ranging from lightning-quick defence to powerful, deep smashes, Lee would spend hours daily on those skills and on honing his deft footwork, repeatedly leaving sparring partners flat-footed.
It would make him a national hero in Malaysia, which has few world-class athletes.
In a sign of his status, his 2012 marriage to former national singles player Wong Mew Choo was attended by the country’s king, queen and prime minister.