Watching Joko Suprianto v Zhao Jian Hua at the All-England 1990 Mens Singles Finals at present. As the match wore on, it became clear the little differences between the game played in those days and the games played now. In an earlier blog post I had wondered how you could compare the greats of yesteryears against those of today, given that so much has changed since then. But the video was very illustrative – the players from before were slower, were more inclined to lift the shuttles, the footwork comprised of seemingly more steps, net shots were nowhere as tidy and close to the net cord as they are today. Every time a net shot was played I kept expected the opponent to pounce on it.
Plus they didn’t ask for shuttle changes all that often too.
There’s nothing more interesting to the audience of a sport to hear a smart-alec commentator who acts as though he knows everything be proven wrong. Well, at least it’s interesting to me. I mean, take a look at the football pundits. They didn’t take Joe Fanboy off the streets, oh no, they actually have qualified experts who’ve actually kicked a ball in front of live spectators who paid to watch them play the game. That’s great. Instant credibility right there. But that doesn’t stop them from being wrong, and sometimes, horrendously wrong.
I always grin at the guy who goes, “There’s no doubt about it, there’s too much quality in the [insert footie club] side”, or “I can’t see them losing this”, and when the match is lost, they go, “No one could have expected this, [insert the above footie club] played well below par, etc, etc”.
Nothing wrong with experts making mistakes, of course. I’m just saying it’s entertaining to have them get their faces rubbed in.
So here comes my point (yeah, I belaboured it, so bite me) – if you like this, and if I were a sports commentator, you’d be having some fun at my expense. I have written off Lee Chong Wei after his not-again loss to Lin Dan at the All-England. As usual, supporting Chong Wei was an exhausting affair – you kept holding your breath hoping he’d whack Lin Dan, waving your arms and all that only to find that you’ve been doing it the whole match and you get tired.
So I watched the Swiss Open final warily. If there’s such a thing as watching a badminton match nonchalantly, I was doing it. And if I was the sports commentator, I would be reiterating the fact that Lin Dan has won the last [insert number] encounters between the two.
But Chong Wei won. He played the game I was screaming at him to play from my living room during the All-England final last week.
If I was a sports commentator, I’d be saying, “Lin Dan played well below par, etc, etc.”
Maybe I should be a sports commentator. Hey, ESPN, want someone to relieve Gillian Clark?
I find it utterly unacceptable that none of our 2 major online news channels updated Lee Chong Wei’s win in the Malaysian Open 2008. We’re talking about a local boy who happens to be World No 1, playing in one of the top international Open tournaments in the world of Badminton, which also happens to be in our freaking backyard!
I understand that TheStar and NST doesn’t have a 24/7 news-cycle, but it’s it about time we did?
The only one that I’m aware of that had this news was Bernama.
When I did a Google search, Bernama wasn’t on the top 10 list. I had to find out from Channel News Asia, the 24-hour news network from our most beloved of neighbours, Singapore, who had their representatives sent home a long time ago, probably by our players too (I’m out of the country, which is why I had to rely on the net for news).
Google regularly places TheStar as one of the go-to places for badminton news. I don’t know why, but it regularly appears in Google News. I would hazard and say that thestar,com.my is far and away the top Malaysian news portal in the world for all things Malaysian. Why doesn’t it have a 24-hour news cycle, at least for Malaysian-related news?
A search will yield BadmintonCentral forums, rather than a news site. I don’t have a problem with BadmintonCentral, but I want news immediately, rather than to wade through posts to find what I want. There’s a time for news articles, and there’s a time for feedback on news. This is not the time for the latter where I was concerned.
Isn’t it about time that our newspapers start being a little more, how shall I put it, 21st century? At the very least when our athletes are concerned or for high-profile tournaments held in Malaysia, or (in this case) both, it may project a better image of our ability to provide *our* news at a timely basis if we did something about it.
If you’re just joining in, I’ve written a short series of posts related to my top badminton players of all-time, an entirely personal list of who I think rule the roost in the world of badminton.
If you want to get up to speed, the other posts are as follows:
In writing this series of posts I thought of a few things.
First is the evolution in sports and how it distorts any reasonable attempts at deciding who’s the ‘best’. Not just in badminton, but in almost any sport you care to name. I don’t know about you, but whenever I watch athletes today I wonder constantly how the the greats of yesteryears compare to the greats of today. As time passes, so many things have changed. The training methods and tools have improved, the diet that top athletes are being put through now is much more carefully planned, replete with supplements the best technology can produce. Also on technology, the gear that the athletes have available for them now are far and away much better than before. The Speedo LZR Racer, for instance, is an example – where of the 77 world records broken to date since its introduction in Feb 2008, 72 of them were by swimmers wearing the hi-tech swimsuit.
Consider how these changes affect sports: for football, the technique in controlling a modern ball is surely different than the old one. Would Pele be able to compete in today’s game? Consider Navratilova or Evert with someone like Venus or Serena Williams – how could their games compare? Remember Navratilova has more titles that both of them combined, but I would think that Navratilova’s game in her prime could not match the powerplay of either of the Williams sisters. Would you still pick Navratilova? People have pondered how Tiger would have performed with Nicklaus or Palmer in their prime. Who is ultimately the better tennis player, Federer, or Sampras?
The point is, there really isn’t a satisfactory answer.
When I started compiling this list, I kept thinking about the most quantifiable way to justify my list. Questions similar to the ones I illustrated above come up again and again. Turns out that there really isn’t a foolproof way of doing it, and the list remains subjective, emotional and cannot be proved by empirical evidence (pretty much what I said in the prologue).
Having said that, I believe the standards for the sport are being pushed higher and higher as we go along. The shuttlers train harder, run further, play stronger, jump higher. It is this believe I think that so many of the modern players dominate my list.
So anyway, I wanted to use this ‘epilogue’, of sorts, to acknowledge some of the players that I left out, some who will elicit screams of rage from badminton fans at large.
1. Morten Frost Hansen
For me, it was a toss-up between Yang Yang and Frost. Frost had a longer and more decorated career, and was certainly not a pushover as a top singles badminton player. He won practically everything there is to win during his playing days, with the notable exception of the World Championships. To top it off, he is a brilliant coach, and did wonders for the teams he tenured with (the same could be said of Yang Yang as well, now that I think of it).
If I were blessed with a better memory, I would remember more of Frost’s battles, but as it is, it’s more Yang Yang than Frost, and to top it off, when he did win a match I remembered, it was against Misbun during the All-England final, breaking my young heart and irrevocably screwed my mental image of him as a bad, bad man.
2. Rudy Hartono
I suppose the only reason he’s not in my list is because I’ve never seen him play. He dominated All-England for 8 years, and is considered pretty much The Man in Indonesia. He was also successful in men’s doubles, which something that you don’t see nowadays at all.
He’s in this list because in the course of my research his record pretty much awed me.
3. Zhao Jianhua
Yang Yang is starting to look like a strange choice, doesn’t it? Not only has he edged out Frost, he was also chosen ahead of this gentlemen. Zhao Jianhua, for all who remembered him, is widely (and I mean widely) regarded to be the best player of all time. Even now. His claim to fame: incredibly tricky player with an arsenal of skills. He’s fast, deceptive and deadly. Unfortunately, he is equally as well known for his inconsistency. This mercurial player is more unpredictable than Dennis Rodman’s hairstyles – you’ll never know when he’s going to lose. My most vivid memory of him was his match against Rashid Sidek in 1992 as first singles in the Thomas Cup semi-finals, which Zhao lost. I remember a dodgy line call that settled the first set for the Malaysian (Zhao was very unhappy with the call), but despite Rashid playing a superbly boring game to neutralize Zhao’s attacking, Zhao couldn’t get his act together to win.
(Actually, perhaps I should say Rashid won in spite of playing a superbly boring game.)
Taufik was also tagged as being inconsistent. But Zhao Jianhua in my mind seemed even more so.
4. Ge Fei/Gu Jun
Women’s doubles pair. China. Unbeatable. Dynamic duo. Won practically every match I’ve seen them play. Could be me, but sometimes I see the boredom in both their eyes when playing in finals of international tournaments. “Sigh, Ge Fei, how I wish they’d just give us the medal now.” “Sigh, look at her, Gu Jun, her hair is in a mess after that body smash I just did.” “Sigh, I wonder what’s on TV now?”
And it’s so creepy (and weirdly funny) watching Ge Fei, who hardly needs to catch her breath throughout matches. You’ll never see her huffing and puffing like Bao Chunlai (who looks like he’s run a marathon after just 3 points). She’s as cool as they come. “Oh, another point. Yawn…”
I was most impressed with Ge Fei at the time, as she was the one who could partner a guy in mixed doubles and win loads of trophies too. She was pretty much installed as my most impressive female player until Gao Ling came along. But even then, I don’t think even Gao Ling had the unmistakable air of invincibility that Ge Fei and Gu Jun had during those days.
Before I close out this series I want to mention that we’re living very enabled times. The internet has transformed our daily lives, and will continue to encompass more and more aspects of our lives. This holds true to the true blue badminton fan as well. If you’ve ever missed a match you wanted to see, or, more importantly, you want to watch an evergreen player whom you’ve never seen before to see how they used to play the game, the internet is a fantastic resource. The BadmintonCentral forum holds more ba
dminton freaks in one place than anywhere I know, and Youtube has a great selection of clips of great players. Badmintontorrents can point you the way to even more downloads of matches.
Agree or disagree with either my train of thoughts, or my choice of players? Let me know in the comments!
This is a continuation of my previous posts on my Top 10 badminton players of all-time. My previous posts include the Prelude, Part 1 and Part 2.
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.
This is a continuation of my previous posts on my Top 10 badminton players of all-time. My previous posts include the Prelude, and Part 1.
7. Zhang Ning
China has produced a lot of top women shuttlers, and while Gong Zhichao is pretty damn impressive (I once read an interview where Gong Zhichao described her training – believe you me, I got tired just reading it), it is Zhang Ning that I ended up choosing in my list. To me, she exemplifies single-minded determination. “The Miracle” (a moniker given to her by coach Li Yongbo) won her first title at 28, an age that is closer to retirement for than it is for starting on a journey of world dominance. But start it she did. A year later she captured the biggest prize in all badminton – the Athens 2004 women’s singles gold.
The quest to capture the Athens gold reads like a really sweet kungfu revenge epic. The woman she beat in the Athens final was Mia Audina, to whom she lost 10 years before, costing China the Uber Cup. At the back of my mind I imagine the broken-hearted Zhang Ning running miles of steps up to a badminton training monastery with buckets of water on her back as penance after the loss, vowing to train harder and to come up tops next time both of them crossed swords.
Talk about getting the monkey off your back.
Zhang Ning’s fantastic play and successful defense of her Olympics Women’s singles gold in Beijing 2008 at 33 years of age (setting the record yet again for the oldest women’s singles gold medal winner) was one of badminton’s most magical moments of all-time. Pure inspiration.
6. Peter Høeg Gade
The great Danish powerhouse, Peter Gade has seemingly played forever. He is a legend not just in Europe (he won the Copenhagen Masters in his home soil for a staggering 9 times – his ninth was bagged just 4 days ago at the time of writing), but in the world as well, having won international titles since 1994 when he was just 18. A fantastic talent, he is a very clever and deceptive player. At 33, he is still World Number 5, which is a testament to his staying power. Will he be mentioned in the same breath as the great Morten Frost? Yes.
His playing style is a mixture of offensive play with guileful courtcraft. Players need to be on their toes with this chap as he can run opponents ragged. As he gets older his play is more focused on tactics than pure powerplay, but no less interesting to watch.
Not only is Gade a great player, he is a very friendly and gracious fellow, one of the more popular players on the circuit. This comes through when the media interviews him after the match.
(Which, by the way, is very perplexing to me – players are shepherded to a mic and an interviewer immediately after winning a match, and they are still dripping with sweat, catching their breaths. Can’t they wait? Sorry, I digress.)
World badminton is ruled by Asian players nowadays, and the tremendous focus it receives in the East is something the European players are not familiar with in their homelands, as badminton is not in the top echelon of their favourite sports. Which is a shame, as players like Gade constantly demonstrate – they have fantastic players who dazzle in the world stage.
And Gade has dazzled more than most.
5. Susi Susanti
My all-time favourite woman singles shuttler. My dad and I used to call her ‘Rubber Band’, as she bounces around the court. Her court coverage was pretty amazing.
I remember her as an all-conquering badminton femme fatale, who very seldom lost the matches I actually watch her play. Her closest rival when I was watching her was Ye Zhaoying, and although Zhaoying was pretty mighty herself, it seemed to me Susi always had the upper hand.
Susi has an idiocyncratic tendency – she tended to do these front splits when she failed to retrieve an out-of-reach shot. Every time that happened I felt like clapping my hands. (Before you ask, no, the splits are not the reason she’s in this list.)
I have another vivid memory of her announcing her engagement to Alan Budi Kusuma shortly after winning the first ever Olympics badminton women’s singles gold medal. I remember thinking that while Alan was good, he was not nearly one of the best, and he wasn’t even the best in the Indonesian team at the time. But strangely he managed to win his men’s singles gold, and I suppose that made them a good pair. Shrug.
Strange things surface to the fore when you’re digging your memories.
The last 4 in the Top 10 coming up!