A Chinese ‘deserter’ remembers his master

Korean coach Li Mao, despite being a hated figure in his home country China, pays homage to his old guru

Dev S Sukumar. Hyderabad

The Chinese don’t take kindly to deserters. Although there are fewer secrets in world badminton today than ever before, the Chinese maintain military-style functioning, which includes shutting off all members from the media, and disallowing any mixing with rival teams. Despite their virtual monopoly — especially at team events — they haven’t relaxed and let go.

One of the reasons for this way of functioning is that some of the main competition has come from former Chinese players like Pi Hongyan (France), Zhou Mi and Wang Chen (Hong Kong), Xu Huaiwen (Germany) and Yao Jie (Holland). This was a generation of Chinese players who were allowed to settle elsewhere, but such migrations have stopped as the team management decided it was better to be safe than sorry. In a few cases, they are particularly cut up.

The most prominent case of a Chinese turning on his former masters is Li Mao, formerly a coach with the national squad, who left in 1999 after a fallout with chief coach Li Yongbo. He took up assignments with Malaysia and then Korea. Li Mao took with him a sharp tactical mind and an insider’s knowledge of Chinese training — and while at Malaysia transformed Lee Chong Wei into the player he now is. If Chong Wei can sometimes stay on level terms with Lin Dan, Li Mao has much to do with it — he worked on his protege’s strength and endurance, turning him from a good player into a potential great.

The one incident that riles the Chinese to this day happened in the Korea Open final in early 2008. Lin Dan was playing local hero, the left-handed Lee Hyun-il. The match was messy, with several line calls going against the World Champion. Finally, late in the third game, another Lin point was overruled by the chair umpire and a match point awarded to Lee Hyun-il. Lin immediately objected, at which Li Mao, sitting in his coach’s chair, leapt up and abused him. A furious Lin hurled his racquet at his countryman, and his own coach Zhang Bo jumped into the fray and pushed Li Mao. After an ugly exchange, Lin went on to lose the match 25-23 in the third game. What infuriated the Chinese was that their own countryman had abused their star player, and distracted him on match point.

Three weeks before the World Championships in Hyderabad, Li Mao sparked off more speculation by hosting his former Malaysian protege Lee Chong Wei in Korea for a two-week camp. The Chinese media followed the move, connecting it with Li Mao’s attempt to prevent a Chinese sweep of the Worlds.

“I don’t want to say anything,” winks Li Mao, now in Hyderabad with the Korean team. “I know the Chinese are keeping tabs on me. But if the world No.1 wants to train with me, wants to visit my home, who am I to refuse?”

But while he has had a prickly relationship with the current team, Li Mao fondly remembers those who taught him the coaching alphabet. He recalls with humility Hou Chia Chang, first of the Chinese greats, who took over the national team in the mid-1970s to transform them into a global superpower. “How can I forget my master?” Li Mao asks. “He taught me for eight years. I owe whatever I am now to him. I will respect him my whole life. He’s done so much, both for my playing, and coaching career. When I visited China during the Beijing Olympics, I made it a point to visit him and spend time with him.”

Incidentally, his master’s greatest moment was in this very city, during the Asian Championships of 1976. Hou Chia Chang, a veteran at 37, was to face the supremely athletic Indonesian Liem Swie King, 17 years his junior, in the final. It was a tribute to Hou Chia Chang’s tactical acumen and strokeplay that he nailed King in straight games to give Indonesia a hard blow.

Since then, Indonesia has had its ups and down; China has not. Not even Li Mao can do anything about that.

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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