Badminton: Can Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia continue Lee Chong Wei's Olympic legacy in Tokyo?
Slaying Momota and Axelsen to pick up the 2021 All England Open title, Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia will be a medal favourite at the Tokyo Olympics and will look to continue Chong Wei's legacy.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy for Malaysian badminton has been the legendary shuttler Lee Chong Wei's jinxed fate at the Olympics. A trio of Olympic silver medals to his name, Chong Wei has never been able to get his hand on the yellow metal and it has been a sore point in Malaysian badminton history.
However, it has been a while since the 38-year-old Chong Wei has hung up his racquet and in no time, another Lee has come into the picture, a 23-year-old Lee Zii Jia, ambitious and eager and very capable of filling out the shoes of the other great Lee.
Impressing from an early age with his attacking power on the court, Lee Zii Jia is being touted as the next Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, and the youngster has the ammunition to prove the case, as well.
The World No. 8 player has been enjoying a decently decorous run in 2021 and has gone toe-to-toe against the existing greats of the game - World No. 1 Kento Momota and World No. 2 Viktor Axelsen. In fact, Lee Zii Jia crowned himself the champion at the 2021 All England Open after securing a mammoth victory over the Danish World No. 2, 30-29, 20-22, 21-9.
Malaysia's pining for a gold medal in men's singles badminton - an honour it truly deserves - remains unfulfilled till date. With Lee Zii Jia in the mix, headed to Tokyo Olympics as a strong medal favourite, the Malaysians have reason to dream again. Zii Jia has the marks of a great champion-in-the-making and resembles Lee Chong Wei's style of play, as well and will shoulder the hopes of an entire nation.
Lee Zii Jia - the path to the All England Open crown
Beginning the year a little scratchily with a quarter-final finish at the Yonex Thailand Open, Zii Jia lost to Taiwan's Chou Tien Chen, 17-21, 15-2. Soon, Zii Jia met with India's Sameer Verma at the Toyota Thailand Open and the duo got into a nail-biting fight in their Round of 32 encounter. Spanning three games, Zii Jia and Verma fought tooth and nail before Verma managed to pull an upset, defeating the bright Malaysian, 18-21, 27-25, 21-19, after an hour and fourteen minutes.
Leaving these minor hiccups behind him, Lee Zii Jia bettered his form sharply after a Round 3 loss to Indonesia's Anthony Ginting, 12-21, 21-15, 13-21 at the BWF World Tour Finals 2020. Using the month of February to upgrade his skills, Zii Jia entered the Yonex Swiss Open to storm into the semi-finals, losing only to Thailand's Kunlavut Vitidsarn, 18-21, 10-21.
However, like flintstones taking a while to light their spark and flare up, Lee Zii Jia's performances were such till the Swiss Open. At the 2021 All England Open, the flintstones worked their magic - the fire was lit and an inspired Lee Zii Jia took on the greats with impressive command. Seeing off World No. 1 and former All England Open champion Kento Momota in straight games at the quarter-finals, 21-16, 21-19, Zii Jia eased past Netherland's Mark Caljouw in the semis and booked a clash with Viktor Axelsen in the finals.
"His wins against Kento Momota and Viktor Axelsen were well earned. He attacked and played well at the net, had the sharpest of smashes, some of them reminding me of Liem Swie King of Indonesia. But he also defended well, showed a lot of patience and opted for rallies whenever he realised he couldn't hit through his opponent. This was seen in his quarterfinal against Japan's Momota," remarked U. Vimal Kumar, the director of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, who had watched Lee Zii Jia closely when the Malaysian visited Bangalore in 2016, in an interview with TOI.
In a match that lasted one hour and fourteen minutes, Zii Jia put up a strong fight against the 2020 All England Open winner, Viktor Axelsen. Playing a thriller against the Dane, Zii edged past to land the most momentous victory in his career by lifting the coveted All England title and ending a 6-year-long wait for Malaysia, 30-29, 20-22, 21-9.
"The final against Denmark's Axelsen showed how Lee had transformed as a player. He had lost to Axelsen in Thailand in January and he made amends. The first game, which he won 30-29, was a show of character. He lost the second despite leading 18-14 but the way he came with unbelievable winners in the decider left Axelsen clueless," analysed Vimal Kumar for TOI, earlier.
Can Lee Zii Jia touch the greatness of Lee Chong Wei?
Even before the All England Open win, Lee Zii Jia was the talk of the town and urged comparisons between him and the Malaysian great - Lee Chong Wei, a 3-time Olympic silver medallist and a 4-time World Championships medallist.
"If Zii Jia can play like this at the Olympics, then he is surely a contender for a medal." – Lee Chong Wei mentioned to New Straits Times after Lee Zii Jia's All England win, willing to put his money on the Malaysian rising star.
The Tokyo Olympics won't be easy-going for Zii Jia especially as it will be his debut outing at the Games. The tall player, with powerful smashes up his alley, has work cut out for him as he will enter Tokyo as the ninth seed and a whole lot of expectations pinned on his shoulders.
"Firstly, I am just thrilled to have qualified for my first Olympics. This was my target when I came into the national setup and I am delighted to have fulfilled this dream. It is the biggest stage, and not everyone gets a chance," Lee Zii Jia remarked after qualifying to Stadium Astro.
Although all major tournaments got either cancelled or postponed following the All England Open and robbed players of the chance to compete actively before the Olympics, Lee Zii Jia remains unfazed and is concentrating on his training and is nurturing the dream of an Olympic medal.
"My preparations are ongoing, with plenty of support from the coaches and support staff. It is tough to prepare sometimes [without many tournaments], but I have been given great support by the team. Others are in the same boat too," Zii Jia mentioned.
Finally, Lee Zii Jia has most importantly earned the faith of Lee Chong Wei as the legendary shuttler truly believes Jia is capable of winning a medal, if it is his day to shine. Malaysia, which is sending its largest contingent in badminton to the Tokyo Olympics will have Chong Wei also accompanying them as the Chef de Mission. With barely a month remaining for the Games to ensue, Chong Wei issued a 'war cry' to rouse his fellow Malaysians as they tie their shoelaces and embark on the hunt for medals, led by Lee Zii Jia, eager to walk in the footsteps of Chong Wei.
"I missed my chance. It's your turn now, comrades. Remember, everytime you wear the national crest and enter the arena, tell yourself that you are not alone. Behind you are 32 million of our people praying for you, cheering for you! Be a Malaysian hero!" he said in a stirring message on social media.
It remains to be seen if Lee Zii Jia can live up to the expectations of his idol - Lee Chong Wei as he opens his maiden Olympic campaign in less than a month and hopes to continue the rich legacy of Malaysia in badminton and take it to new heights.