Lin Dan will head into the London Olympics as favourite to win a gold medal that will be an addition to a staggering collection of titles, but more than the number, it is the sheer authority with which he has dominated badminton that he qualifies to be among the greatest of all time.
The inevitable question arises: how does he compare across eras?
Apart from those from the pre-Chinese era (Dave Freeman, Wong Peng Soon, Erland Kops, Rudy Hartono), two evoke comparisons with Lin Dan. Those are his compatriots — Zhao Jianhua and Yang Yang — both left-handers like him. Any talk of Lin Dan inevitably brings up comparisons with them. But neither Zhao, nor Yang Yang, has a trophy cabinet that resembles anything like the current champion’s. Yang Yang and Zhao have one All England title each. Lin Dan has five, out of eight final appearances. Yang Yang won two World Championships, Zhao one. Lin Dan has four, and looks good enough for more. Neither Yang Yang nor Zhao, unlike Lin, has an Olympic title.
With the emergence of Lin Dan, it was no more a battle between equals — there was him, and there was everyone else. “He has no weakness,” shrugged longtime rival Peter Gade a couple of years ago. “He’s one of the greatest, ever. No doubt about that.”
What makes Lin so devastating is his ability on all counts. Lin Dan soaring in the air is one of the most majestic sights in sport. The lift-off is followed by a moment’s hesitation as he decides which direction he should choose, and then the shuttle homes in on the target. His wristy snap at the moment of contact, and the steepness of the angle, make it impossible for the opponent to either predict or defend his smash accurately. He is able to unleash smashes off-position, and able to defend just as well — covering up with dives when he fails to make the distance. At the net he is as good as anyone in the world.
Veteran Dutchman Dicky Palyama, who beat Chinese no.3 (and left-hander) Bao Chunlai before falling to Lin in the third round of the 2009 World Championships in Hyderabad, said it wasn’t the power of the smash that made Lin Dan so good. “Bao actually hits the shuttle harder than Lin Dan, but I could defend it,” he said. “But with Lin, it’s not that you cannot take the smash, it’s that you cannot control it. I spent all evening looking at his videos but couldn’t spot one weakness.”
Veteran watchers of the game are divided. While some think Zhao and Yang Yang rank higher, others, like former top-ten player Kenneth Jonassen, believe the comparison across eras is flawed. “The game is faster now,” he said. “But one thing’s sure — you cannot get a better athlete, in any sport, than Lin Dan.”
This era has been lucky for badminton fans, for it produced the genius of Taufik Hidayat at the same time as Lin. Their styles are different — Taufik is lyrical; Lin is physical, but he brings a physical beauty to badminton. “Taufik does just about enough to win the game,” says Jonassen. “Lin Dan crushes you from the start.”
Lin has just a handful of losses in major events. Unlike Roger Federer, who hasn’t been able to shake off the Nadal question, Lin Dan has no Nadal. Asked what he thought of the greats of his time, like Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, Lin said: “I have no illusions I’m there with them. They’re all great.” That is polite talk, for Lin Dan sits at the pinnacle of his game, and he has no equal.
(All quotes are based on interactions during the 2009 World Championships)