That sums up the hierarchy in men’s singles badminton today. Every player wants to get close to the ‘Big Three’, but the gulf is so large that it is almost dispiriting.
Heading the pack among the hopefuls is Du Pengyu, the 24-year-old from Hubei. Rather like Andy Murray who slaved on for a number of years before being talked of in the same league as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Du Pengyu has toiled quietly, away from the limelight.
After a number of years struggling in obscurity and outside the top-ten, Du finally had an impressive year in 2012, in which he reached four major finals – at the Indonesia and Denmark Superseries, and the Asian Championships and World Superseries Finals. By the end of the year, he was world No. 5 – not bad for someone who was No. 165 three years ago.
What stands out about Du is his guts, his sheer tenacity, despite being of average skill. He is such a physical player that one winces while watching him play – he is all muscle and hustle, and doesn’t seem to have an artistic bone in his body. That possibly explains why he has never won a single open tournament in his career – not even a Grand Prix. (His only major win is the World University Championships.) But that’s also precisely why we have to admire him for his single-mindedness, for not many in the top-ten can boast of getting there with such limited talent.
Two matches stand out – in the Indonesia Open final, he was hopelessly outclassed by the sublime skills of the Indonesian Simon Santoso, but he gamely threw himself all over, retrieving impossible shots, while at Denmark, he gave Lee Chong Wei a run for his money, and the world no.1 heaved a long sigh of relief when he finally converted match point.
“I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am now,” Du told this correspondent at the Denmark Open. The hard work finally paid off at the World Superseries Finals, where he finally beat Lee Chong Wei in his first match, before losing the final to Chen Long.
When he reached yet another final at the Korea Open, he seemed a fair bet against Chong Wei, but the Malaysian produced a sparkling display of speed, deception and accuracy to leave the Chinese gasping in his wake. Still, there were some brief moments in the second game when Du’s relentlessness seemed to get to Chong Wei, but the Malaysian was far too experienced to crack. The Chinese knows he has some work to do before he can hope to achieve the winning aura of Chong Wei or Chen Long – not to mention Lin Dan – when they are at their best. But Du Pengyu will keep trying. And, like Andy Murray, perhaps he will finally have his moment in the sun before too long.