Few players have the luxury of walking away from their sport without any lacuna in their résumé – so complete are their achievements. Lin Dan was one such.
To call him the ‘Greatest Ever’ would be a disservice to many other legends of the sport, not just in men’s singles, but women’s singles and the doubles categories as well, for achievements cannot be compared across eras or categories.
But he was without doubt the greatest men’s singles player of the post-2000 period. To watch him in his prime was to see an apex predator in flight, so disconcertingly confident in its abilities. Lin Dan had a swagger to match his genius; his ownership of the court perhaps gave him that edge when confronted with dire situations.
This special combination – of supreme self-belief and on-court ability – made him a widely-recognised icon, not just in the badminton world, but beyond.
This swagger was there even early in his career. Against the accomplished Peter Gade, for instance, in the All England 2004 final, Lin had the same cockiness that he carried with him later on.
But his swagger was based on substance. Lin’s greatness rested on all-round ability, for no opponent in the course of two decades was consistently able to exploit any perceived weakness. As an attacking men’s singles player, his explosiveness was his signature strength; the high vertical take-off gave him a number of options, even from deep within his court – the outright crosscourt or down-the-line smash, the well-placed half-smash, or a variety of sliced shots. His explosiveness also gave him the ability for sharp interceptions that he made his own.
Allied to all this was a tight defence which often was spectacular, for when all else failed he dived full-length to retrieve from impossible situations; enough deception to wrong-foot opponents, and wickedly-angled shots under pressure which he sometimes played with his back to the net. All this would have counted for little had he not had the mental strength to back his abilities; it was in his department that he would prove tougher than any of his contemporaries.
He was to say later that his early loss in Athens 2004 made him resolve never to let pressure affect him again. It is possible that he was not totally invulnerable, for he was human – the Malaysia Open 2006 final loss to Lee Chong Wei, where he blew seven match points, was a case in point – but what made him extraordinary was how rarely he succumbed at the biggest tournaments. At six World Championships between 2006 and 2013, he suffered but one loss, and in this period also captured two Olympic gold medals. The pressure of playing at home in Beijing 2008 was followed by the pressure of defending his crown in London 2012; on both occasions he emerged unscathed.
At some of these events he was severely tested, most prominently by Lee Chong Wei. In the 2011 final he trailed in the third game and was two match points down. A year later came the epic final at the London Olympics, where once again Lee was on the threshold of glory. But Lin’s stubbornness proved impossible for Lee to surmount.
Further heartbreak awaited the Malaysian. Lin had all but disappeared from the circuit, playing just one event in the run-up to the World Championships 2013. Momentum and match-fitness seemed to be on Lee’s side, and things looked well for him with a first game win. Lin turned to an aspect of his game that few had given him credit for; he made it a battle of attrition with endless clears, challenging Lee to find a way past him. The Malaysian eventually succumbed to cramps in the third game.
Following that success, Lin was again out of the circuit for a while. On his return in 2014, and touching 30, he changed his style, trading his explosiveness for a more thoughtful approach, relying more on placement and courtcraft. Unable to play the World Championships 2014, he defeated both Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long at the Asian Games for his second gold medal.
His reliance on craft was the second innings of his career, and it continued to bring him the titles, though not as frequently as before. Among his later successes should count the Japan Open 2015 title, when he masterfully outplayed Viktor Axelsen after trailing 3-11 in the third; his sixth All England title (2016); Malaysia Open titles (2017 and 2019), and a second World Championships silver (2017).
His second Malaysia Open title, just over a year ago – he beat players like Chou Tien Chen, Shi Yu Qi and Chen Long – demonstrated that even when he was far from his prime, he was still a force to reckon with.
Asked what he thought about a potential successor, he said: “There’s a lot that he has to do to match my achievements.” It is unlikely that his achievements will be matched in the foreseeable future.