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In every global sport, we have seen extended periods of dominance by certain champions who have been in a league of their own. There are a plenty of examples, Roger Federer in tennis, Michael Jordan in basketball and Michael Schumacher in Formula One racing. In the world’s fastest racquet sport, Chinese shuttler Lin Dan was the Numero Uno of men’s badminton for almost a decade.
Lin Dan has accomplished almost everything the sport has to offer in a glittering career which has almost spanned two decades. Many shuttlers dream of having a World Championship medal, Dan has a record five World titles to his name. Dan is also the only male shuttler to have won the Olympic men’s singles badminton title twice. Dan has racked up all the major Super Series titles and has a staggering sixty five trophies in his silverware.
In the early 2000s, Lin Dan became the heir apparent to a strong Chinese badminton legacy which produced some great singles players in Yang Yang, Zhao Jianhua, Sun Jun, Han Jian and Xiong Guobao, who were among the leading shuttlers in the 80s and 90s. ‘Super Dan’ spearhead the badminton resurgence for the Dragon nation and brought an end to the long-standing hegemony of Indonesia in the sport.
With the turn of the century, Dan emerged as the leader of a galaxy of supremely talented male shuttlers like Xia Xuanze, Chen Jin, Chen Hong, Bao Chunlai, Chen Yu and Chen Long, helping China win five successive Thomas Cup titles between 2004 and 2012.
Early in his career, Dan had to fend off stiff challenges from many of his illustrious contemporaries like Xia Xuanze and Cheng Hong to reach the pinnacle of the sport. The badminton fraternity knows all about his much famed yet fierce rivalry with Malaysian legend Lee Chong Wei which has seen the Asian giants locking horns in some memorable epic clashes which stand etched forever in the memory of badminton fans.
During the first decade of the 2000s, the two modern-day greats had pretty much won all the major trophies on the World Tour but it was Dan who always emerged supreme over his Malaysian opponent at World Championships and the Olympics. It hasn’t been a walk in the park for Dan as world class shuttlers like Peter Gade, Taufiq Hidayat, Lee Hyun-il and his fellow Chinese compatriots Chen Long and Chen Jin posed a strong challenge to Dan’s supremacy for almost a decade.
It is creditable for Dan to have dominated most of his duels and boasted of impressive records against formidable challengers like Son Wan Ho, Boonsak Ponsana, Bao Chunlai, Simon Santoso, Sony Dwi Koncoro, Jan Jorgenson, Kenichi Tago and Mark Zwiebler.
Between 2003 and 2014, It had become routine like to see Dan making it to the finals of the top tier Super Series events and run away with a plethora of titles. However, the last three years have seen the rise of an emerging order which has showcased the firepower and mental fortitude to be the champions. Change is investable and a change of baton in men’s badminton at the very top has already begun.
With Lee Chong Wei taking time off the circuit to fight back against cancer, Chen Long having a lean patch, seasoned campaigners Son Wan Ho and Jan Jorgenson catching up with age and Lin certainly not the force he once was, there were some top spots up for the grabs in the men’s game, which have been rightly taken over by the next generation.
The most promising of the new crop of players seems to be Japan’s World Champion Kento Momota and All England champion Shi Yuqi, both of whom who have been on a title-winning spree over the last two seasons. Then we have the tall Dane Viktor Axelsen who has reigned supreme at the 2017 World Championships. Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen, India’s Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy, Indonesians Jonatan Christie and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, Japan's Kento Nishimoto and Denmark's Anders Antonsen have all won titles at top-tier tournaments.
Lin Dan’s track record in 2018 seems very mediocre considering the lofty heights he has scaled in his stellar career. Going deep into numbers, 2018 has been the worst season for the multiple World Champion in terms of winning titles and he had also been forced out of the men's top ten singles rankings. Besides winning the New Zealand Open and making it to the finals at the All England Championships, the Chinese shuttler hasn’t lifted any other major title or even made it to the title clash.
It comes as a big surprise that Lin hasn’t been able to make the quarterfinals in 12 off the 16 tournaments he has contested this year. What really has been worrying are some first round exits at the hands of much lesser known and lower ranked opponents. One ought to remember that Dan is already 35 and is competing against top-notch opponents who are around ten years younger to him. The reflexes have become a touch slower and the endurance to play tight matches against much younger and fitter opponents have taken a toll on the ageing superstar.
It is often said that champions leave the sport at the heights of their career. With Lin Dan setting his sight on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, can there be a bolt from the past with the Chinese great rediscovering his silken touch and elegant shot making which catapulted him to the top of the men’s game.
A comeback cannot be completely ruled out but Dan knows it for sure that it would be a tall order for him to prevail supreme over the likes of Kento Momota, Shi Yuqi and Viktor Axelsen who have had the better of him in their recent clashes. Perhaps the Chinese shuttler could take a leaf out of tennis maestro Roger Federer's highly effective tour schedule where the Swiss great skips certain tournaments to keep himself fit and raring to go for major tournaments and Grand Slams.