4. Tony Gunawan
A true doubles specialist, and someone I consider to be pretty much the best doubles player ever. Yes, I think he’s better than Park Joo Bong, or Li Yongbo, or Kim Dong-moon, or whoever else you care to name.
He has won countless top tier competitions with a variety of partners in both men’s and mixed doubles. There are players who are just lucky to win titles after just one partner change, but fellow is so gamely he doesn’t seem to mind who he wins titles with. A testament, of course, to his playing abilities.
Gunawan is my poster boy for thinking doubles play. His modus operandi seems to be to bewilder opponents. Supremely experienced and seemingly impervious to pressure, if he weren’t starting to age he’s still be at the top of the world rankings.
And I say this with all due respect to Howard Bach: anyone who can win the World Championships partnering a player not among the world’s elite deserves much adulation, praise and monetary rewards, and of course, a mention in my list. I saw the World Championship men’s doubles finals 2005, and remember being increasingly incredulous as Gunawan (then playing for the US) masterfully controlled the court while crafting opportunities for his partner Bach to use his only available weapon – his smash. And this against his current partner Chandra Wijaya, at that time partnering Sigit Budiarto. Wijaya and Budiarto are no chopped liver, I can assure you. Gunawan/Bach’s win gave the United States (the United States!) their first ever World Championship gold. Even Malaysia hasn’t got one of those, and Malaysia is a country where people on the street actually know what badminton is!
(My dearest American friends, I apologize if this seems flippant. Imagine if you will the Olympics Gold for men’s basketball was won by Malaysia. You’d be amazed and appreciative, but still incredulous. And the fact remains that 99% of the American population does not know they have a Badminton World Championship gold medal. I asked.)
I really liked that he and his best friend Chandra Wijaya have reunited a couple of years ago to tour the circuit entirely on their own (with sponsorship, I understand) to play, completely without pressure and to enjoy the game.
3. Gao Ling
My favourite player to watch, bar none. Gao Ling’s the most jovial personality I’ve ever seen in my years of watching badminton matches. She is very good-natured, and always has a self-deprecating smile for a missed shot or a good play.
I really like watching her play. Every other player on the court puts on a poker face, like going through the motions in another day at the office (Taufik Hidayat comes to mind. He doesn’t even seem to need to catch his breath). Gao Ling is refreshingly different, she wears her feelings on her sleeve, and as I’ve mentioned in a very old post of mine, she soothes my soul, and makes badminton so much fun.
After Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the wuxia novels of Jin Yong, Gao Ling is the third most painful reminder of regret that I can’t read Chinese. Apparently the juiciest badminton gossips can be gleaned from Chinese tabloids, and while Google Translate enables me to read some of the stories, it takes an incredible amount of effort to understand the translation (and to avoid laughing too much). I learned that she went out for a time with Chen Hong (I don’t know why, he’s always so sour-looking, such an antithesis to her very nature), another top Chinese men’s singles shuttler, and when they broke off, there was a big commotion in the news. I remember feeling sad, and hoped that this nice girl finds someone equally nice.
No, I’m not insane. This is probably the closest I’ve got to idol worship.
Oh, did I mention that she was also a winner? I’m sorry, I just got carried away praising her demeanour that I forgot to mention that she is a brilliant doubles specialist in the mold of the formidable Ge Fei – able to play at the highest level in mixed and women’s doubles. She is fast, tenacious and has great anticipation.
Considered one of the best woman doubles player of all time, she has stood on the winners podium at the All-England for the last 8 years, either as women’s doubles or mixed doubles champion, and sometimes both. She was an Olympics gold medal winner in 2000 and 2004 in mixed doubles, 4 time World Championship winner and countless other titles.
See? Nice fun-loving people don’t always finish last.
As a bonus, check out one of the longest badminton rallies I’ve seen, featuring (who else?) Gao Ling.
2. Taufik Hidayat
The world’s most innately talented badminton player. On pure talent alone, I think this chap beats all. A precocious teenager when he burst onto the scene, he is noted for this cool and calm demeanour, and a mastery of the game that is well beyond his years.
I think his reputation has a gifted talent comes from his shot-making ability. He is not known for his ability to retrieve shots, or his attacking ability (although he has that also). I think it is his ability to improvise, to create a shot out of nothing, to attack when it seems like he is on the ropes. Of course, the prime example of this is his world-famous backhand smash.
He is always dangerous. He is the one player that the Chinese are looking out for. He is the one that has the Malaysian players shake their heads when they find that he is in their draw. Even now, when he is supposedly past his prime, he is still winning Super Series tournaments. People tend to forget that he is only 28 this year, because he has been on the tour so long.
Before Lin Dan came along, he was the bad boy of badminton. He went head-on against the Indonesian Badminton Federation when they changed his coach, and gave a walkover to Lin Dan in a semifinal match over a disputed line call (that match was less than 10 minutes old when he walked out).
But whatever tantrums he threw, he will still be remembered in my mind as the maestro.
He may not be my top badminton pick, but he is definitely my favourite player of all time. I know I’m all the more fortunate in my life to have loved badminton, and to have watched Taufik Hidayat play.
1. Lin Dan
It’s possible to quantify a player’s success in sports. No matter how passionately you believe a
player to be good, you cannot argue with the record. It’s like how some are adamant that Michael Chang was one of the best and brightest young talents ever to emerge for tennis, but where are his trophies? It’s irrelevant just how gifted a player is if he doesn’t have anything to show for it.
No matter what your feelings are for Lin Dan, there are a couple of things that cannot be denied:
- World No 1 from 2004 for an almost consecutive period of 4 years. Not an easy feat in the modern game (Chong Wei was very briefly No 1 in 2006 – something like 5 minutes, I think). I can’t think of anyone who dominated the sport so thoroughly since Rudy Hartono.
- Including singles and team events, he won 6 titles in 2004, 4 titles in 2005, 8 titles in 2006, 7 titles in 2007 and 4 titles in 2008 (even though he was resting for almost 4 months after his Olympics gold!). And that’s not including the times he came second. Oh, and by titles, I mean Super Series and Grand Prix titles, not domestic or satellite tournament titles, ok?
Who cares if he had a bust-up with his coach, or that he was a sore loser during the awards ceremony after losing the 2006 Malaysian Open final? So what if Taufik pronounced him as ‘arrogant’? Lin Dan is virtually unbeatable, and have been for the longest time. At 26, he still has at least 2 years of top flight badminton in him (Han Jian was still winning titles at 29, Gade at 32).
His domination of the game seems so effortless and total. After winning the Beijing Olympics gold, he was not playing (I’m tempted to say enjoying his win) for almost 4 months before coming back to the Super Series tour playing in the China Open, and promptly won it.
Apparently he’s good looking too, enough to attract the leggy beauty Xie Xingfang, a former World No 1 Chinese female singles shuttler, and countless screaming, hysterical fans.
I can’t help but draw some parallels between Lin Dan’s achievements with those of Roger Federer’s and Tiger Wood’s, but bearing in mind that badminton is more physically intensive than tennis (I don’t think I want to compare the physical intensity between badminton and golf. If you have any doubts, please buy a TV).
The fact that Chong Wei dispatched Peter Gade with such authority in the BWF Super Series Masters Finals in Sabah in Dec 2008 seemed to underline the fact: No matter how devastating Chong Wei may seem, the world knows there’s still one other who is even better.
My top badminton player pick is a champion of champions.
p.s. I must say though, that his nickname, ‘Super Dan’, has got to be one of the stupidest nicknames for a top athlete I have ever had the misfortune of hearing. I mean, come on! I’m sure it translates well in Chinese, but in English it sounds like a washing detergent.
That’s it! This is my Top 10 badminton players of all-time. There’s still an Epilogue to this series, where I pick the ones that almost made it to the list. That’s coming tomorrow.
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Prelude
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Part 1
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Part 2
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Part 3
- My Top 10 Badminton Players of All-Time – Epilogue