KUALA LUMPUR: Dogged by illness and advanced age, the career of Malaysian badminton superstar Lee Chong Wei appears to be nearing the end.
The richest sportsman in Malaysia – his total prize money collected so far stands at US$1.85 million - had identified the Olympic Games 2020 as his last hurrah. However, Lee’s time on the court might be cut short even before the games, if he fails to meet the qualification mark.
Malaysian badminton is now into its 10th month without Lee, who has yet to make a comeback after battling early-stage nose cancer and will miss the World Championships in August. He is still working on his fitness and his current world ranking has slipped to 113th.
Lee, 36, was the only Malaysian shuttler to have ever held the world No 1 ranking for more than a year. One of his regrets will be not winning any major tournament. However, he has won 69 titles and is still seen as Malaysia’s best hope for glory.
With Lee’s retirement just around the corner, the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) is now left with a daunting task: to find someone to fill his shoes and raise the standard of the national team.
The association has come under the spotlight, with some saying that there is no effective succession plan in place.
While BAM has touted various programmes being implemented, from grooming elites to promoting the game at the grassroots level in all states, the results have not been clearly evident. Lack of funds have also been blamed for the current malaise.
Those in the fraternity, however, remain hopeful, with younger players raring to go and new training approaches under consideration.
CURRENT SQUAD NOT WITHOUT QUALITY: HEAD COACH
Liew Daren, Chong Wei Fen, Misbun Ramdan and Zulfadli Zulkiffli were among those earlier earmarked to take over from Lee, but none have delivered.
In particular, Zulfadli, the 2011 world junior champion had been banned for 20-years for match-fixing.
While the current national team lacks established names, all is not lost, said BAM’s singles head coach Misbun Sidek when interviewed by CNA. He remarked that his squad of eight players is not without quality.
He named the lanky Lee Zii Jia as a potential world-beater. A bronze medallist at the 2016 World Junior Championship, the 21-year-old won his first senior international tournament when he captured the Chinese Taipei Open last year.
“Zii Jia has the height, muscle and technique. What he is lacking now is fitness, agility, as well as tactical and mental strength.
“Exposure in bigger tournaments such as World Tour 1,000 will help him after improving his world ranking to 23,” said Misbun who has trained three former world number one, including Rashid Sidek, Roslin Hashim and Lee.
Beside him, Misbun said the 2018 Asian Junior champion, Leong Jun Hao, as well as Cheam June Wei, Tan Jia Wei and Aidil Soleh are among the players who could excel.
“Currently Jun Hao is still under rehabilitation due to his old hip injury. He is only 19 and had been identified for the 2024 Olympics,” said the coach.
Cheam, 22, hopes that he and his teammates could mature in a year.
“We still need exposure to become better players. In Malaysia, I think nobody can replace Chong Wei.
“We can only do our best for the country,” said Cheam, who admitted the only way to challenge the high benchmark set by Lee is to win the major tournaments that had eluded the player – including the Olympics and the World Championship.
From Misbun’s perspective, the current system where only highly-ranked players can gain direct entry to major tournaments is the biggest barrier for junior players to gain experience.
The team is also hamstrung by BAM’s tight budget, the coach added. He said he wanted to send more junior players to play in international tournaments, but did not have the resources. In the end, he could only focus on those already earmarked for the Olympics.
BUDGET IS NO EXCUSE: LEE CHONG WEI
Lee, however, told CNA that the budget is no excuse. Players should take every opportunity to prove their capabilities, he added.
“We are lacking good sparring partners, due to a smaller pool of players. In the past, we had 16 players (in the national squad) and with more varieties of playing styles.
“But this is no excuse as BAM is not the only party affected by financial constraints. Players should think about the future by proving themselves in tournaments,” he stated.
He stressed that there is no short cut for success and the main “enemy” for the younger players is actually from within themselves.
“Now, I might be driving a sports car to the training centre but players should not look at me now. They should see how I was when I was a nobody in the team,” he said.
He also noted that some younger players lack the hunger for success. “Some of these players are from well-off families and are not really serious. They have the thinking that if they fail, they can still rely on their families,” said the triple Olympic Games silver medalist.
BAM DEFENDS TRACK RECORD, SEEKS TO SHAKE THINGS UP
With time running out, the fingers are pointed at BAM on whether it has done enough at the grassroots level to identify talent and develop rising stars.
BAM’s secretary-general Ng Chin Chai said it is unfair to say that the association has failed in developing the game at the grassroots level as it has produced several world junior champions since 1996.
“We have programmes with all state BAs (badminton associations) for players between 10 and 18 years old, beside tournaments for Under 12, 14, 16, 18 and 21.
“In fact, in the second half of this year, we will select players between 13 and 18 years old and put them in Malaysia Badminton Academy in Bukit Kiara to have proper training.
“These are our plans to have a bigger pool of players to get more quality players,” he said.
BAM has in the past been dogged by claims of favouritism. A former player who declined to be identified told CNA that it is a rampant problem, not just in the selection of national trainees but also during training sessions.
“You can see players from certain states get picked to join the national squad. From my personal experience while in the backup team, I did not get the chance to spar with the seniors although another teammate was given the opportunity,” he said.
These claims, however, were dismissed by Ng. “If we detect coaches who practice favouritism or are biased, we will definitely step in ... But so far so good, over the years we did not detect favouritism,” he said.
Ng noted that it is difficult to transform a world junior champion into a world champion as it is very competitive at the senior level, compared to the junior category where many countries are not taking it so seriously.
He also stressed that the training system used by BAM is almost 90 per cent similar to what is being used by China, South Korea and even Japan, but admitted it failed to get the same result.
To shake things up, the secretary-general said BAM will put in extra focus on the physical aspects for the junior players.
“All this while, the emphasis has been more on technical (training) rather than physical. Now maybe we want to reverse it. This is still being considered,” he said.
MORE INNOVATIVE APPROACHES NEEDED?
Badminton Asia’s (BAC) General Manager’s Kenny Goh said BAM should be more innovative and cannot just rely on the same tried-and-tested methods.
He also said BAM should work more with the National Sports Institute in using sports science and the latest training programmes to maximise the players’ capabilities.
“I am just wondering if keeping all the best young players in BJSS (Bukit Jalil Sports School) is the way to get quality players.
“This is like putting all eggs in one basket. Maybe it is better to select only the best from the best and put them together, while others train at a decentralised training centre,” said Goh who was also BAM’s former general manager. BAC is the governing body for the sport in Asia.
With the Thomas Cup - a major team event - scheduled in May 2020 followed by the Olympic Games in July, BAM has a huge task on its hands.
For now, it remains to be seen whether a shuttler will emerge from Lee’s shadow and truly excite the fans.