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Wild Card: Lin Dan talks about badminton’s greatest comeback

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Living up to his reputation as badminton’s greatest-ever player, LIN DAN won his fifth BWF World Championships title in August despite barely competing in the 12 months since successfully defending his Olympic title in London. ‘Super Dan’ explained what he has been doing and what he wants from badminton.

 

By SportAsia

 

On August 5, 2012, Lin Dan won his second Olympic gold medal in typically spectacular fashion, beating World No. 1 Lee Chong Wei in a three-set thriller at London’s Wembley Arena to underline his reputation as badminton’s greatest-ever player.

 

After a stunning display of skill, speed, power, grace and cat-like reflexes, badminton’s poster boy tore off his shirt to reveal the lean, muscular figure of a sportsman in his prime, then proudly draped himself in the China flag. The ‘rock star of badminton’ was on top of the world.

 

Then he stopped playing the sport.

 

Despite having announced he would take some time off to focus on his wedding in Beijing to long-time girlfriend Xie Xingfang, Lin’s absence from all tournament play and his lack of practice prompted retirement rumours.

 

In December he married Xie – herself a former World No. 1 and World Championships winner in 2005 and 2006 – before travelling to Denmark later in the month to play an exhibition match against Peter Gade, Lin looking out of touch as he lost 2-1 to the retired 36-year-old.

 

It was only in April 2013 that Lin finally played his first post-Olympics tournament, competing at the Badminton Asia Championships in Taiwan. Although he won three matches, including two three-game battles in one day, to reach the quarter-finals, he then withdrew, citing a shoulder injury.

 

The uncertainty over his form and commitment only increased the talk about his future in the sport, especially as his world ranking plummeted into the hundreds.

 

However, it was then announced in May that Lin had accepted a wildcard to compete at the year’s biggest badminton event, the BWF World Championships, a title he had won four times previously, but never after spending so long away from the court.

 

Lin at the 2013 World Championships. Photo: Power of Sport Images.

Lin at the 2013 World Championships. Photo: Power of Sport Images.

On August 5, 2013, a year to the day after winning Olympic gold, a suntanned Lin re-appeared on badminton’s biggest stage amid huge anticipation to play his first-round match in Guangzhou, which proved to be the set for a sporting drama of Hollywood proportions.

 

As if in a movie script, the superstar proceeded to delight his loyal fans in world-beating fashion, even knocking out World No. 2 Chen Long on his way to again defeating long-time Malaysian rival Lee Chong Wei in a dramatic final that ended prematurely when the World No. 1 retired with cramp.

 

As enigmatic as he is brilliant, Lin talked about his ‘lost year’ and what the future holds for the 29-year-old, who has admitted that he wants to be for badminton in China what Yao Ming was for basketball and Li Na is for tennis.

 

What have you been doing since you won the Olympics?

Over the past year, I’ve spent a wonderful time with my family and I’ve really appreciated all the time I’ve spent with them. Now, I’m back in the national team and I want to do my best on the court. I want to take every match seriously and respect every opponent. That’s important to me.

 

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After playing so little badminton for a year, you came back for the World Championships in Guangzhou, when you were ranked 286th in the world …

When coach Li Yongbo told me I had a wildcard for the World Championships, I was kind of surprised because there was only a couple of months to prepare, so I told myself to just do my best and try hard. At that time, so many people doubted how far I could go, as I hadn’t really played many world-class tournaments.

 

Since I’ve returned to training, the environment has been pretty good, as there are a lot of young players who can train together with me. I’ve found out that I need to adapt to a lot of different styles and techniques, and the training was very helpful to prepare for the real match experience. However, I think we can still tell that all that counts is your attitude to the match. Even if you don’t know the result you must still try hard. Even if you have to make sacrifices, you must try hard.

 

 

Can you talk about the pressure as you returned to play in such a major tournament, especially in China in front of your home fans and media?

Before the World Championships, all the media and all the fans had very high expectations of my performance, but for me, I just wanted to have a really good attitude in my matches and make the most of my opportunity.

Lin during his semi-final win over Nguyen Tien Minh of Vietnam.

Lin during his semi-final win over Nguyen Tien Minh of Vietnam.

It was very demanding from the media. They always ask questions like ‘how many more titles can I win’ and ‘when is my next tournament’. Actually, what I care more about is not my next tournament, but how many world-level championships I can play by representing my national team. I’ve been a national team player since I was 13, so for me, I want to see how long I can go on in terms of representing my country.

 

Did you surprise yourself with your performances in Guangzhou?

I think all the effort I made in the past year proved worthwhile. Even if I didn’t play a lot of badminton in that period, I still did fitness training. No one forced me to do it. Part of the reason I did it was because I wanted to maintain a good physical condition, to maintain strength and fitness. Another reason is I wanted to keep fit and look nice for when I go out or dress up!

 

 

It was another great final between you and Lee Chong Wei, but had a dramatic ending when he got cramp late in the third game and retired when you were 20-17 up. When he went down injured the second and final time, you consoled him. What did you say to him?

That’s where we can see the cruelty of the sport. I think Chong Wei and I did a good job and produced a really excellent performance for all the fans, so it’s a pity he couldn’t last to the end. Chong Wei didn’t want to give up, definitely not. I was leading by four points when he first got the cramp. Then, when it was 19-17, I played a shot and he couldn’t move. I’ve had those cramps before and when you have it, it’s not about the spirit; you really can’t move when you get that cramp. It reminded me of when I’ve had this cramp in training. It’s true: you can’t move at all.

Lin consoles Lee Chong Wei after the World No. 1 retired late in the third game of the World Championships final.

Lin consoles Lee Chong Wei after the World No. 1 retired late in the third game of the World Championships final.

At that moment, we were not opponents any more. I wanted to know how he was feeling and really wanted to help. He didn’t want to give up, so I asked him how he was and if he was okay. I think it’s a real pity for him, but I really thank this great opponent. Because of him, I have been able to fully realise my potential.

 

Ahead of your final, China were set for one of their lowest gold medal counts for many years. Did that add to the pressure?

In the three earlier finals, the women’s doubles was a very tough match even though they won it, and it was such a pity about Li Xuerui (women’s singles) and the mixed doubles. If I lost and China only got one gold medal in Guangzhou, that would have been a little bit embarrassing. The good thing is I’m not the head coach so I don’t need to worry about these things.

 

However, I didn’t think about it that much before I played. I just wanted to let everyone know my attitude to the matches and the sport and I also wanted the fans – who came to watch the match in their own time and spent their money – to feel satisfied and happy. Even though there was quite a dramatic ending, both of us tried our best. We’re both about 30 years old and if we can fight this long and give this type of performance, it proves that we’re top players. It was like our match in the London Olympics. Most of the time with us, there’s no loser. Both of us win.

 

 

How did you feel about your wife commentating on CCTV while you were playing? Do you talk a lot about badminton at home?

I didn’t hear her comments about me, but from the bottom of my heart, I hope she said good things about me because her husband is a very hard-working player! I’m glad CCTV invited her to be a commentator and hope all the viewers enjoyed her comments.

Lin with wife Xie Xingfang after winning his fifth World Championships.

Lin with wife Xie Xingfang after winning his fifth World Championships.

In daily life, besides training, we rarely talk a lot about badminton. Most of the time, it’s very hard already because every day is filled with badminton. After training, we just want to relax a little bit and talk about not-very-serious things.

 

You’re a celebrity couple, so does your wife have any influence on your image?

We have some communication in terms of our image in our daily life and I think it’s a good idea to give suggestions to each other. After all, as athletes we want to project a healthy, positive image to the public. Apart from my wife, a lot of my friends give me suggestions on my style and image. As you can see, last year I had my hair all over my forehead, while it’s a new style now (laughs).

 

Now you’re married, how will you balance your time at home and your commitments as a badminton player?

It’s true that family plays a very important role in your life once you get married, but on the other hand, a professional player has to keep playing to get more points. That’s the big conflict. Each player needs to protect himself in the long run, but also the international associations including the BWF can make a joint effort to try to see how players can have longer careers.

 

It’s only when more and more good players can play for longer that this great game, badminton, can be more appealing and glamorous to a global audience. That’s my belief. For example, it doesn’t matter to me who wins the singles, doubles or mixed. We just want more excellent matches. That will be the most helpful thing for the sport and the best thing for all the fans.

 

Do you think you’ve become a calmer person since spending time away from the sport?

My better temper is down to my family. After getting married, I have to take more responsibility for my family and spend more time taking care of them.

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On top of this are all my experiences. I started from nobody and then became a rising star in badminton and have now become one of the leaders. I’ve competed three times in the Olympics, three times in the Asian Games, three times in the National Games and so on. Through all these years, I’ve had ups and downs, so I think this has also helped my temper a lot. I’ve learned a lot from my elder teammates and also younger ones.

 

Personally, I don’t care that much about the result for each match. All I care about is my mindset and having a good mental status and attitude to matches. I just try to play well for each match and demonstrate my value as a player.

 

Even in terms of trying to pace my matches now, I’ve learnt a lot from my experience in the sport. I’ve been playing competitively since I was 13 years old, having first picked up a racquet when I was five. Over all these years, I have a better understanding of this sport and as I’ve grown older, I’ve had to deal with other issues as well. During this process, my mindset has been changing and now I treasure each match a lot more.

 

What are your plans for the future?

Badminton has been with me from when I was five years old until now. Badminton is no longer just a sport, it’s also a part of me. Although I don’t have a final say about any decisions about the national team, I hope I can represent my country in as many tournaments or championships as possible, because it makes me feel really proud and I have a limited time for my career.

 

Recently, one of my friends shared a photo of Bao Chunlai and me taken in 2000 when we were participating in the junior championships. That’s 13 years ago, which is really something. It’s a good memory.

 

After you eventually retire, who do you think will be the next great player who will have a huge influence on the sport?

Definitely Chen Long, my teammate. He’s very young, only 24, so will only be 27 at the next Olympics, which is a great age for a badminton player. Each match we’ve played has been tough and I was quite relieved when I beat him.

Lin presents Chen Long as badminton's next superstar.

Lin presents Chen Long as badminton’s next superstar.

Apart from that, I hope the new superstars can help promote the sport by producing more and more excellent matches. It really doesn’t matter who wins the titles. The fans care more about the unforgettable moments during the matches. I think that’s the most important and greatest treasure for the sport.

 

One of the other reasons I came back is because of my fans. I’ve received many letters from my fans and most of the time they didn’t talk about how many medals or tournaments I won. They care more about your attitude and performance on court and which movement or shot inspired them, so I think that’s very, very important and should shape your mindset towards the fans that care about you. It’s very inspiring to all these young people. I want to tell them never to give up your dreams. Even if you cannot predict the result, you have to do your best.

 

 

Badminton 2013 World Championships

Lin with his fifth World Championships title. Photo: BWF.

LIN DAN

Sport: Badminton

Country: China

Residence: Beijing, China

Born: October 14, 1983; Fujian, China

Height/weight: 1.78m, 70kg

Selected achievements:

Olympics (singles) – winner 2008, 2012

World Championships (singles) – winner 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013

All-England Open (singles) – winner 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Asian Games (singles) – winner 2010

Asia Championships (singles) – winner 2010, 2011

Thomas Cup (team) – winner 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012

Sudirman Cup (team) – winner 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011

Note: By the age of 28, Lin became the first player to complete the ‘Super Grand Slam’, having won all nine major titles in world badminton: Olympics, World Championships, World Cup, Thomas Cup, Sudirman Cup, Super Series Masters Finals, All England Open, Asian Games and Asia Championships. He remains the only player to achieve this feat.

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