An unrivalled rivalry for the ages

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China's Lin Dan (right) and Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei exchange shirts after the latter's victory in the men's singles semifinal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Fifteen years ago in a packed Kuala Lumpur stadium, rising stars Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei met in a final for the first time, setting the stage for what would become badminton's greatest rivalry.

Malaysia's Lee, then 22, fell to the floor, punched the air and blew kisses to the crowd after his see-sawing, 88-minute 17-15, 9-15, 15-9 victory, when he battled back from behind in the first and last games.

"Everyone saw how (Lin) played," said Lee, who was the defending champion, after his win at the Kuala Lumpur Badminton Stadium.

"He is excellent in attack and his overhead smashes and forehand cross-court shots are dangerous. So it is very satisfying to beat him."

It was a fittingly tense start for a matchup that would span two Olympic finals and two world championship deciders, and drew a new generation of fans for the sport.

But the match would remain one of the high points for Lee, who lost his four world and Olympic finals against the Chinese great and retired last year without winning either of the sport's top two titles.

"Their rivalry happened in a period when badminton needed inspiration," KM Boopathy, a veteran Malaysian sports journalist who watched the 2005 game, told AFP.

"They managed to make the sport extremely popular."

Polar opposites

Lee, now 37, and Lin, 36, played 40 times in total, with the Chinese player convincingly winning their head-to-head 28-12. Lee had lost his first and only encounter against Lin before beating him in the Kuala Lumpur final.

The 2008 and 2012 Olympic title matches were among the most memorable showdowns between the men, who both enjoyed long spells atop the world rankings.

Lin won in straight games in Beijing in 2008, but Lee came agonizingly close to gold at London 2012, leading 19-18 in the deciding game before fatefully leaving a shot that dropped on the line.

Bracketing the 2012 defeat, Lee lost world-title matches to Lin in 2011 and then in 2013 in southern China, when the air conditioning failed mid-match and the Malaysian left the arena with cramp as he faced match point.

Fiery Lin and soft-spoken Lee are very different characters, although they were friends off the court and share a strong mutual respect.

Known as "Super Dan", Lin had a reputation as badminton's bad boy-he sported multiple tattoos, unusually for a Chinese player, and strutted around the court with supreme confidence.

The two-time Olympic and five-time world champion, often regarded as the best badminton player ever, often ran into controversy. In 2008, he threw a temper tantrum during a training session after which he denied striking his coach.

In contrast, Lee was quiet and unassuming. But his humble demeanor belied a dazzling array of weapons on the court-he was blessed with lightning reflexes and once held the record for the world's fastest smash.

His 19-year career also had its fair share of drama, however.

The then world No 1 was banned after testing positive for a proscribed anti-inflammatory at the 2014 world championships, and was sidelined for eight months until authorities eventually accepted his explanation that he took the banned drug inadvertently.

Mutual respect

Lee launched a comeback and defeated Lin in a thrilling semifinal at the 2016 Rio Olympics-only to lose once again in the final, this time to another Chinese, Chen Long.

The sinewy Lee longed for a final shot at Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games, now postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but his hopes were dashed after being diagnosed with nose cancer in 2018.

He recovered after treatment but struggled to regain his form, and announced his retirement last year at a tearful news conference.

With 705 wins and 69 titles, Lee is a national hero in Malaysia, which has produced few world-class athletes. The pair's final match was the quarterfinals of the prestigious All-England Open in March 2018, which the Chinese won.

But Lin has not hit his former heights in recent years, and with retirement looming he looked certain to miss the Tokyo Olympics before they were postponed to next year.

When Lee announced his retirement, Lin posted on Weibo: "I will be alone on the court and no one will accompany me."

And only last month, Lee described his nemesis, who is still playing but looks certain to miss out on qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, as a "legend".

"His titles speak for themselves. We have to salute him," he said.

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