Dev S Sukumar. Birmingham
March 9: The Chinese are generally uptight when they play in Asia. They move in close groups, scowl at everybody, and are inaccessible to the foreign press. In Europe, however, they undergo a dramatic transformation. At the practise courts on Monday, the most raucous of the lot were the Chinese. Perhaps it has to do with their relative obscurity in Europe, compared to the constant pressure under the spotlight in Asia.
On the circuit, there appears to be great friction between the top Chinese and the others, but perhaps that is just an assumption of the game’s fanatical followers. As 2008 All England champion Chen Jin walks in, he nods at everyone, and smiles at Taufik Hidayat, China’s most famous rival. Chen has even said that Taufik is the player he admires the most, and if he could have spoken his language, they would be friends.
Meanwhile, Lin Dan walks in and again nods at those sitting by. This man, of whom the non-badminton playing world knows so little, is one of the greatest athletes of our times — it’s a shame his fame abounds only in a few countries. Lin has won everything there is to be won in badminton — four All England titles, an Olympic gold, and three world championships, and all that success was built on a supremely tuned body.
I ask Paul Andjelkovic, who has been setting the arena at the All England for the last 34 years, about Lin Dan. Paul is a character; he is a big hearty fellow who everybody addresses as ‘Big Paul’. He is so much in demand that the Chinese requested his services to re-create the 2004 Athens Olympics arena for them in China months before the event; complete with the seat colour and the noise of the audience. After that he has been a fixture in China, orchestrating things at the Beijing Olympics, and two major events every year. “Oh, Lin Dan must be the greatest, no doubt about that,” he says. “Compared to Yang Yang and Zhao Jianhua? I’d still say Lin is the greatest.”
But the mantle of ‘The Greatest’ falls on a different shoulder every generation. In the Sixties, it was Erland Kops, who with his seven titles was considered unassailable; then came Rudy Hartono, who won seven successively, and then an eighth. Lin has been in six successive finals, of which he has won four, and threw the 2008 final to Chen Jin, whom he was helping qualify for the Beijing Olympics. It’s perhaps unfair to nominate one player as the greatest, for it would do a disservice to those before him who have dominated their eras.