What can you say about Lin Dan,the most successful men’s singles player in the history of badminton? Quite a lot as it turns out.. At the time of writing this he appears to be having a second period of the year away from the game after winning the 2013 World Championships and the China National Games title.
He has won every major title in badminton including 2 Olympic Gold medals and 5 World Championship titles. In total he has bagged 51 titles in his career so far ,not bad going i think you would agree. I first saw him play at the All England in 2003 and he lost to a korean player named Shon Seung Mo. I still have this on video, so you can tell how long ago it was. He was still very raw and played every rally at 100 miles an hour, trying to get on the attack as much as possible. The main thing i noticed was his explosive power, he was very very quick but seemed impatient and tactically naive. He looked like a young player learning the ropes at international level, which is exactly what he was. Below is a very early video of Lin Dan aged 19.
Later in 2003 i saw him again at the World Championships in Birmingham, where he lost to Xia Xuanze in the 3rd round. He did play quite well, but Xia had a lot more international experience and it did show. To be honest he didn’t seem that special the first few times i saw him. Having watched the likes of Yang Yang, Zhao Jianhua and Sun Jun at close hand at the All England, these to me were the benchmark of what Chinese men’s singles was all about.
However, later in 2003 he began to win tournaments. It seemed like he had got valuable experience and learned to win matches. He finished 2003 very strongly winning in Denmark, Hong Kong and China. Below is a few highlights of his win in China against Wong Choong Han. The quality is very poor but you can see some of the trademark shots we still see today, most notably his forehand cross court smash technique. His movement is very fast but nothing like as smooth and efficient as it is today.
2004 was when he really began to show the world he was here to stay, and i watched him win his first All England title, beating Peter Gade in the final. Gade was in good form, and played with his usual fast paced movement throughout. Lin Dan lifted to Gade’s forehand a lot all through the match, which seemed to be playing to his strength as he had an excellent slice from that area of the court. It didn’t seem to matter though as he picked up that shot almost all the time. It went to 3 games but in that last game Lin blew Gade away, both in speed of shot and movement. There was a nice touch at the end of the match when Gade ruffled Lin Dan’s hair as if to say well done to the youngster.
I saw him lose the 2005 All England final to Chen Hong in 3 games. This was another entertaining match, with Chen getting the better of him in the end. There were some fantastic rallies, full of invention and great athleticism from both players, but on the day Chen was a worthy winner.
You can see from the video that Lin Dan’s movement had become much smoother compared to a few years earlier, as his leg strength increased and his stroke production improved. Later in 2005 he reached his first World Championship final, but got hammered by Taufik Hidayat, who was at his peak in 2004-2005, and seemed to give Lin Dan the most problems of any player.
2006 saw him back in the All England final, this time playing Lee Hyun Il from Korea, who he beat in 2 straight games. It was a very emphatic result, although he did fall very badly after a forehand jump smash in the second game. The best match of the whole tournament was in the semi final, when he beat Lee Chong Wei after trailing throughout the 3rd game. These two had already had some great encounters, and this set the tone for one of the best badminton rivalries we have seen. Later in 2006 he won his first World title when he beat his teammate Bao Chunlai in the final.
2007 saw him win the All England yet again. I watched the final where he battered teammate Chen Yu and he was really on top form that day. He also won a second world title when he beat Sony Dwi Koncoro in straight games, the second game being a much more even contest than the first. There are loads of videos on youtube worth watching, but the one below is a great angle and really shows just how fast top level badminton is. The video is from the French Open 2007.
You can see from the video how much he has improved since 2005, especially in his movement to the round the head shots, he is much quicker to get in position. Also notice how he switches his feet from his base position to anticipate lifts to his forehand, a classic Chinese coaching tactic. Peter Gade was a great example of this base switch when he was playing.
Another All England final came in 2008, and once again i was there to watch the best players in the world battle it out. Lin got through to the final to face Chen Jin. I watched Chen Jin beat Lee Chong Wei in the semi final, and this was an excellent game. This was when Lee was very passive in his play, just happy to run around the court and retrieve shots rather than the player we see today who is far more aggressive, and more successful for it. Chen Jin was playing all out to try and qualify for that 3rd spot on the Chinese team for the Olympics and deserved his semi final win. I remember sitting down to watch the final and as soon as i saw Lin Dan in the warm up i knew what was coming. It was pretty obvious that Chen Jin was going to win this match to gain his place at the Olympics and so Lin Dan was under orders to give him the win. He basically had a pretend injury and played as though he had one all through the match. I had seen this before when Zhao Jianhua did the same back in 1992 to allow another compatriot to qualify for the Olympics. The wrongs and rights of this deserve a post of its own so i won’t go into it right now.
The highlight of Lin’s career was that Olympic Final of 2008, and he played the best match of his life when it mattered most. I guess the sign of a champion is to be able to play at your best when you are under the most pressure, and it doesn’t get any bigger than winning the biggest prize in badminton with the weight of an entire country on your shoulders. He demolished Lee Chong Wei that day, and it was probably his defining moment on a badminton court, an almost perfect performance. In fact there is only one other match i have seen that came as close to prefection, and that was watching Zhao Jianhua beat Joko Suprianto in the All England final of 1990. Below is a video of the highlights of the Olympic final 2008. Funny to hear the American commentary of this match though.
It is interesting to see what differences Lin Dan had in his game compared to earlier years. By 2008 he had added top spin to his backhand defensive shots and also to his backhand lifts from the net. He had also improved his low forehand technique from the rear court, so he was much more deceptive even when taking the shuttle late. This improvement allowed him to play more cross court shots from that position, and in addition he also had the ability to drive the shuttle cross court from deep in his forehand corner, which is probably the most difficult shot in badminton. His speed into the net from his smash was incredible that day, and he made many easy kills from that speed. His base position was so high up the court it was ridiculous, i have never seen anyone do that to that extreme before. I am sure that Misbun Sidek would have told Lee Chong Wei about it, but even when he tried to hit to the back of the court, Lin was so fast getting back he could still smash and hit winners or set up a winning position. I guess that the ability to hit winners from the rear court is what sets the very best players apart from the rest. For me, as a badminton player and a fan, it is great to be able to see someone play like he did in that final. It shows just how good sport can be when someone who has trained all their life plays to their maximum level.
Onwards to 2009, and yet another All England final for Lin Dan, once again playing Lee Chong Wei. Both of them looked really good going into the final, but Lin proved too good on the day, winning in straight games. Both played well and at a fast pace, with Lee showing much more willingness to attack. This was probably the last season that Lin played all out attack in his matches. After 2009 he seemed to change to a more patient game, where he would rally a bit more, only going for winners when he could easily put them away. Another World title came his way in 2009, when he beat Chen Jin pretty easily.
In 2010 he lost in the quarter finals of the All England, and he didn’t seem to be all that bothered. Once again i was there watching, but he was on the far court from where i was sat so i couldn’t see much of that match from close up. He did however win the Asian Games title and the Thomas Cup with China. The Asian Games final also produced some fantastic rallies between these 2 players. The video below shows how good Lin’s court coverage had become.
The shot he plays from deep in his forehand corner is incredible, i have never seen anyone hit such a powerful shot from that position. It shows just how strong his wrist power is, which is another feature of his game that has improved over the years. You this this strength in his round the head shots, he takes very little back swing when he is at full stretch but he can generate a lot of power and a steep angle both down the line and cross court.
Moving on to 2011, and he started off the year with a win at the Korea Open against you know who. This was a great match to see, with victory coming in 3 very tough games. Lee got his revenge in the All England, winning easily in straight games. This all led very nicely to the World Championships in England in August. I am gutted to this day to have missed that final, i was away on holiday. Not to worry though, the video is on youtube and here are the highlights.
He seemed to be able to peak for the biggest tournaments, and this match has got to be one of the best World Championship finals of all time, going right down to the wire. The Lin’s credit, the way he played when saving match points was incredible. His reaction when he won was pure drama, but i couldn’t help feeling so sorry for Lee for coming so close.
With the Olympics coming up in 2012, Lin Dan began to get his form back by the end of 2011 to improve his world ranking and hence his possible seeding for the 2012 Games. He won the China Open, the Hong Kong Open and the Super Series finals to finish very strongly. His more patient style of play was evident, but he could still inject pace of movement and shot when he felt like it.
2012 saw him lose in the final of the Korea Open to Lee in 3 hard fought games. The arena in Korea is massive, and it is hard to put the shuttle away from the back court so a great tactical battle commenced with very long, tiring rallies. Great to watch for all badminton fans. All England title number 5 came along in March when Lee retired with a shoulder injury. I didn’t see the final, but i was there for the semi finals, and saw Lin do just enough when it mattered to beat Kenichi Tago of Japan to progress to the final. Of course the big event was the London 2012 Olympics and due to the way the organisers set up the ticket allocation i didn’t get to see any of the badminton live. Once again Lin met Lee, and once again he beat him in another close final. The final was not as good as the 2011 World meet encounter, but it had all the drama and tension you could wish for. Lin Dan finally won and went running round the arena before falling to the ground, the first man to win consecutive Olympic men’s singles titles.
Before that Olympic final Lin also helped China to win the Thomas Cup, winning all his matches and adding to his growing collection of career titles. After the Olympics he decided to take a break from international badminton and only played in exhibition games and the China Super League. I guess when you have won everything there is to win you may lose motivation. The years of hard practice must also take a toll on the body, so he decided to take a break. This break lasted well into 2013, and his world ranking dropped accordingly, so much so that he was given a wild card entry into the 2013 World Championships in China. The fact that he was unseeded was a worry to all the top ranked players as you can imagine.
Nobody knew what kind of form his was in as he had played no tournaments, i guess only he knew deep down whether he was still capable of actually winning a 5th World title. The draw kept him away from Lee Chong Wei, but put him on a possible quarter final match up against Chen Long, the current world number 2 and All England champion. He breezed into that quarter final, playing even more patient badminton, only going for winners when he had a good chance of ending the rally. To me it looked like the Lin Dan of old, playing with the same style and confidence. He beat Chen Long very convincingly, taking the pace out of the game and frustrating his younger opponent. You have to remember that Chen had never beaten Lin Dan, and that must have been playing on his mind. A straightforward semi final win took him to the final that the world wanted to see, another battle against Lee Chong Wei.
It turned out to be another epic battle between these two, with Lin claiming his 5th World title when Lee cramped up late in the 3rd game, having to retire injured. There was some good sportsmanship shown by Lin when he went over the net to try and help Lee back on his feet, but i suppose it is easy to be gracious in victory when you just keep winning. It would have been interesting to see what Lin’s reaction would have been had he lost that match, i guess we will never know because he doesn’t seem to lose the major finals.
Shortly after the World final, he then played in the China National Games, going for a record 3rd singles title, and of course he won that as well, beating Du Pengyu easily in the final.
So there you have it, a brief potted history of the most successful men’s singles player in history. Is he the best ever? I think so. How can you argue against what he has achieved? To be so consistent over such a long period of time is very difficult. To have almost a year away from the game and then to come back and win the World Championships is amazing. What lies ahead only Lin Dan knows. The fact that he will have to qualify for Super Series events in 2014 should be interesting if he decides to play on. One thing is for sure, there will be large hole left at the top of world badminton when he retires.