Here was a man who exuded confidence, self-belief and a gentlemanly spirit on-court and off it, whether facing rocket smashes from world beaters or answering fiery questions from scribes, and doing it all with an endearing shirk of impudence and a world class level of showboating. To top things off, this man reigned at the summit of one of the most demanding sports in the world for close to two decades before taking his final bow on Friday.
For many, Peter Hoeg Gade was an extraordinary shuttler, one of very few who could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Lin Dan, Ji Xinpeng, Taufik Hidayat and Lee Chong Wei. For others, he was the embodiment of the can-do spirit, a living example that hardwork does pay. For others still, he was a strapping, handsome man who made his strokes on court look like pieces of art. For fans like me, he was all this and much more.
The first time the name Peter Gade registered in my head was while watching a delayed telecast of the 2001 All England final on Television. While the result was well known in India (Pulella Gopichand had downed the world No.1 Dane to become just the second shuttler from the nation to win the tournament) and nationalist sentiments strove to take my loyalties elsewhere, a few points into the match, I had already become enthralled by Gade’s shot-making.
His court-movement during those days of his career was phenomenal and the power of his strokes from the back court could catch the best defensive player out. An uncanny ability to divert the pace of his opponent’s strokes into well placed drops all over court made his defense quite strong as well. Which was the reason that even at the age of 35, when most badminton singles players would have retired twice over, and despite playing much fewer tournaments, Gade had a world ranking of 5 for the most part of 2012, before eventually slipping to 12th post Olympics.
Ten years on since that All England final of 2001, I finally got to meet and take an interview of Gade while covering the Indian Open Super Series for one of my former employers. Over a freewheeling chat in the stands of the Siri Fort complex, Gade shed light on a range of topics from his best friends in the sport to the ‘special shots’ he has been credited with inventing and even his love for wine, cooking and music. In a little over half an hour, the Dane had given me a complete insight into life on Tour, away from family and friends, dedicated to fine-tuning your skill and ensuring you can give that extra 0.1% on court every time.
Another point of discussion in that meeting, and what could probably now be his greatest regret, is missing out on an Olympic or World Championship gold medal. Despite holding the world No.1 ranking between 1998-2001, and then again in 2006, Gade could never script a dream run in either of these tournaments.
He came close of course, reaching the final of the 2001 World Championships before losing to Indonesia’s Hendrawan 6-15, 17-16. He also claimed four bronze medals, the last two of which came as late as 2010 and 2011. At the Olympics, he was never able to land a medal, losing to the eventual gold medallist in 2000 (Xinpeng), 2004 (Hidayat) and 2008 (Dan) before bowing out to China’s Chen Long in the quarterfinals this time around in London.
One thing both Gade and I did not know then was that we were talking the day ahead of his last major singles final in his career. The Indian Open 2011 was the last Super Series final Gade played (lost to Chong Wei) and it sure was one memorable match, taking his Malaysian world No.1 opponent to the full three games before succumbing 12-21, 21-15, 15-21. The younger, sprightlier Chong Wei had won through and it was a just reflection of a worn out body screaming for respite after years of rigorous toil.
Back then Gade felt he had one last run at a major title left and he did achieve that dream to an extent, helping Denmark get a bronze medal at the 2012 Thomas Cup. His dream of an Olympic medal may have hit a Chinese wall but in China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and all other nations in the badminton world, he will retire a real superstar.
Not often does one of sport’s greatest icons shut shop on his career and move on. When this is happening now, let’s just stand by and applaud.