THE ROAD TO BEIJING – The Taufik-Lin Dan Rivalry

Image\"From now until the , Badzine will be producing a series of features and profiles to help you understand what will be at stake in Beijing. Here is Part I:

The Hidayat Identity, The Lin Supremacy & The Beijing Ultimatum

Taufik Hidayat and Lin Dan are amongst the main contenders for the men’s singles title at the upcoming Olympic Games. Their rivalry has been going on for a long time and it should peak in Beijing. Our correspondent Aaron Wong takes a closer look at their personalities, their behaviour, and why their rivalry has been in the spotlight.

By Aaron Wong, Badzine Correspondent. Photos: Badmintonphoto

Everybody noticed. During the first few weeks of 2008, Taufik Hidayat spent the week in Malaysia but skipped Korea. Lin Dan had withdrawn from Malaysia but went to Seoul. These guys keep missing each other. Could they be avoiding one another? Consider whether or not this is a bad thing.

For Taufik, playing in Malaysia is hopping next door on the map, and Lin Dan had a similar commute higher in the Northern Hemisphere. This makes perfect sense for either man’s warm-up for the new season, being a matter of travel convenience and climate preference.

“South East Asia is always hot and humid and it affects me psychologically,” Lin said when he toured Singapore. “Indoors, they turn on the air conditioning full blast to keep everybody cool which causes a draft in the hall which can be a huge problem.”

So this instance is explained. But what is to be made of other such star-crossed occasions?

Image Last year’s controversial Sudirman Cup final between China and Indonesia had Lin Dan and Taufik down as a dead rubber. The Daily Express called it “dreadful luck” that the men’s singles was drawn last, while The Herald maintained “As a result, 2500 million Asian viewers, and a packed Scotstoun capacity crowd (of 2000) were denied what some people had billed the match of the decade.”

The buzz had built up in part owing to two possible encounters having gone begging. The previous month, Lin Dan had entered and then withdrawn from the Indonesia Open, where Taufik was six-time defending champion. Two months prior to that, Taufik happened to quarrel with his national association and subsequently went missing in action for the All England, where Lin Dan emerged the victor.

The contests that have eventuated since their World Championship clash in Anaheim have contained some disappointments and spots of expect the unexpected.

2006: When You Least Expect It, Just What You Least Expect

A sub-10 point score for Taufik. That is the hammering the Indonesian received as Lin closed out his straight-game Thomas Cup victory.

“(Lin Dan) played well and I couldn’t keep up with his speed. Yet we’ll meet again,” Taufik was quoted as saying at the time.

Who can forget the Hong Kong Open 2006? It was as though too many appliances were plugged into a single socket. A flash, a pop, and the breaker tripped. Television footage captured Lin Dan minutes into the opening game, bewildered by the dramatics that took place. Taufik flew into a rage over a reversed line call that put him 1-4 behind instead of 2-3.

The Indonesian pleaded with the lineswoman, umpire and tournament referee to reinstate the original call such that he would have won the point, but to no avail. At that point, Taufik made good on his threat from the previous week’s Korea Open and voted with his feet on the issue of biased officiating.

Image Outrageous though it may seem, Taufik’s move was not without precedent. One-time women’s singles world number one Wang Chen had done no less at the 2005 Chinese National Games except she was not as upfront about it.

Wang Chen and her opponent had nowhere close to the accumulated star wattage of Lin Dan and Taufik Hidayat. The two men’s combined celebrity generates attention that can work in favour of or against a player, and urge spectators to take sides. It backfired on Taufik. The important issue that Taufik helped to raise became obscured by the focus by the media and fans on the players’ rivalry.

Now, almost a year and a half later, change is in the air for international badminton adjudication. The governing body’s New Year’s Eve press release read “BWF push for international umpires at Super Series events”. This was followed by the New Straits Times headline: “Players call for neutral umpires, TV replays”. Despite the attention that one player’s brave unequivocal stance has brought, his reputation has not been reconciled in most people’s minds as the proactive pioneer of this cause. Instead what the majority remember is that the Hong Kong match ended as quickly as it began.

Six weeks later, the lads came up again in the final of the Japan Open. The first two thirds were the definition of beautiful badminton and split evenly with each man reaching 21-16. In what should have been a thrilling decider, it turned out the opposite and it is not a stretch to say anybody with a serve might have achieved the same result as Taufik. Lin Dan won the last game 21-3 but was robbed of total satisfaction.

But are these outcomes really such headscratchers? Their contrasting personalities and abilities are well known. Lin Dan’s fitness, strength and stamina have been described countless times as incredible. He has held the number one spot for an extended period – save for blink-and-you-miss-it stints by Peter Gade, Lee Chong Wei, and Chen Jin – thus making him the favourite in any tournament he chooses. His head-to-head record over world top ten ranked teammates is astonishing (defeating Bao Chunlai 6:1 in 2007, unbeaten by Chen Jin in 6 attempts, unbeaten by Chen Yu in 7 attempts, and equal with Chen Hong at 5:5).

Predating the Lin Dan era, Taufik’s record throughout “will show that he has the tendency to under-perform, even throw away matches sometimes, in lead-up tournaments to a major event.” (New Straits Times, 30 July 2007.) We have also seen him capable of achieving a goal he sets his mind to. The stage was set for their next showdown.

The Asian Games : Taufik on Top

“Taufik Hidayat had been claiming for almost a year that this title in the individual event – a title he won in Busan in 2002 – was his main target,” reported Badzine during the Doha Asian Games in December 2006.

“This is the most important event for me this year,” said Hidayat. “If you fail to win the World Championship, you can try to win the next year. But for the Asian Games or Olympics, you don’t have such chances.” (New Straits Times)

With memories of Hong Kong and Japan fresh in everyone’s mind, this encounter took on Beatlesesque proportions in our relatively small sport. When their fates collide any incident and every remark is scrutinised and potentially blown out of proportion with the ensuing media juggernaut on the verge of overwhelming the athletes at the time.

Image This was never truer than at these Asian Games. Misquotes flew before shuttles did. Agence France Press, Associated Press and Reuters, amongst a barrage of media outlets, all latched onto the word “arrogant” that Taufik was alleged to have called Lin Dan. Xie Xingfang, the world number one in singles, stung back via the press to protect her boyfriend Lin, leaving the Chinese head coach Li Yongbo to ice over the situation. Next, both Lin and Hidayat declared they only speak their native languages.

Makes one wonder what the Bahasa Indonesia word for “arrogant” actually is, and to whom he could have said it. "I did not say that personally. I do not know why reports always like to talk about just me and Lin," Hidayat defended himself. (China Daily)

Regardless, the fanfare worked a treat. Their racquets had extra motivation to do the talking. The Chinese scored consecutive victories over the Indonesian to seal country glory in the team event. On the last day of competition, Taufik finished the year with sweet revenge and got what he told the world he had come for.

2007: Pure Badminton

In 2007, they met in January in Malaysia in the 1st round, and twice in November in the quarter-finals of the French and Hong Kong Opens.

No antics. Just top flight badminton. The only boring thing that can be said on the whole was they were all won in straight games and they all went Lin Dan’s way: 21-19, 23-21 in Kuala Lumpur, 21-14, 22-20 in Paris. The Chinese star had a 7-point deficit at one stage in Hong Kong but he managed to turn it around 21-12, 21-14 and could hardly contain his jubilation afterwards.

“I haven’t enjoyed a match like that for a long time. This is the best match I’ve played in three weeks, and I was really enjoying myself out there today,” said Lin.

The interesting thing is Taufik played more tournaments than he had in a long time and fate only brought them together three times, and these were at nose and tail ends of the year which seemed like eons to wait.

Startling Candour

There is no doubt Lin Dan he holds his matches against Taufik in special regard. "There are not many chances to play against Taufik,” he admitted.

In fact, over the past twelve months, both men have revealed a great deal more about what they think of facing each other. They have publicly recognised that theirs is the ultimate rivalry and the pinnacle of skill in badminton today. "I think Taufik is the best player in the world. He has won the Olympics and the World Championships. I always play trying to catch up with him," said Lin in Japan. "For me, I try to become a player whom no other player can catch up with."

Image In May, Taufik said “I want to beat him in the big tournaments. Lin Dan is a big champion – he is No. 1 in the world.” (Straits Times)

These candid voice grabs in particular are naked and absolutely startling. This is, perhaps, the truest mark of what it is to be a champion — to be able to admit such things about your opponent. It is praise, mutual respect, and aspirations of the highest order stated in straightforward terms. One can think of no current competitors across the disciplines who have said anything of the sort or reached this level of maturity in their rivalry. To feel it as all about gamesmanship is this time to miss recognising rare beauty in sport.

Peer Insight: The Players’ Circle

Lin Dan and Taufik are well known amongst the other players to be the best of their generation. Here are the thoughts of some other top shuttlers.

“Taufik’s the better player because he gets what he wants, but I like watching Lin Dan play. It’s hard to choose because they are both so good.” – Pi Hongyan. (The Straits Times, May 2007.)

“There’s no doubt that Lin Dan has generally been the best player in the last two years. However, when it comes to individual events, Taufik has been the best in most of them.” – Peter Gade (The Straits Times, May 2007.)

Singaporean Kendrick Lee, having played both men, says Taufik is “very good tactically. He somehow manages to read all my moves when we play. That makes him more difficult to beat.” (The Straits Times, May 2007.)

Former world number two Malaysian Ong Ewe Hock has also gone head-to-head with both young guns. In an interview, he described Lin Dan as “an all-rounder with strong attacking instincts”. Forced to choose an all-time best player he named Taufik: “He has character and charisma. He gives me this feeling that when he sets his sights on achieving something, he will accomplish it. Taufik is hard to beat on his day.” (www.badminton-information.com)

Li Yongbo, at the conclusion of the Doha Asian Games, hedged his bets on his charge and the entire following year he was 100% on the money.

"Lin Dan is stronger than Taufik. He is faster than him and his technique is a little better. But at this level of competition, the playing abilities are very similar, so it’s normal for either side to win.

"I have watched him (Taufik) play at the Asian Games and he is good.” (Xinhua News Agency, December 2006.

Super Seriously, Keep Up

2007 was the interim before the Olympic year. What set it apart as an exciting as well as stressful year for players was the introduction of the Super Series. Players were ready and running in a points race and no one wanted to be left behind at the cost of Olympic dreams. Players endeavoured to keep their tournament entries up and injuries down but these professional aspects are never inversely proportional.

Apart from a scolding by Li Yongbo at the Sudirman Cup for his defeat to Lee Chong Wei and from a confession of tiredness at the end of the year like everyone else, Lin Dan performed solidly in 2007 and padded his own world number one ranking so much so he is a commanding 10000 ranking points ahead of the number two — no one else in men’s singles is that far ahead of the next player.

Taufik urgently started setting goals for 2007 when he found out what the Super Series entailed, and he climbed nearly 30 notches to where he sits now on the leader board. No small feat. Unflinching, champions do what needs to be done.

His reputation as the most dangerous unseeded player and his choosy tour strategy of old was no longer the right formula for taking on a Super Series as it would have meant playing extra qualification rounds. Former world number ones Wong Choong Han and Lee Hyun Il discovered how tiring that really is. Taufik took home the Asian Continential Championships plus the SEA Games but no Super Series titles despite his increased tournament exposure. This is the man who comes up with the goods when it looks to all concerned like he does not care about winning. The Super Series year was a change of pace. He focused on touring and winning consistently and he succeeded in terms of quantity.

"My target is to keep my ranking in the top eight so I’m seeded for next year’s Super Series and the Olympics," Hidayat remarked about his last match against Lin.

ImageTop Predators

Lin Dan and Taufik Hidayat are the faces of badminton. Adorning banners promoting tournaments is invariably the ultra-dynamic jump smash pose of the Chinese star with the movie idol hair and his peculiar crooked snarl. The handsome Indonesian boy wonder is often caught in action shots engrossed in executing a stroke.

Lin Dan and Taufik are the top predators and both men have boosted the standards of their peers. Their prey have had to innovate ways of staying alive against Lin Dan’s explosive assaults and the traps set up by Taufik at the net. Korean number two Park Sung Hwan has the secret recipe for neutralising the hotness of the Chinese offensive having done so on three occasions. Tall Indian number one Anup Sridhar used steep drops to continually force the Indonesian into lifting awkward shuttles, which were flicked into the net or sat up for half-court kills during the last World Championships.

Such is the distinctiveness of each man’s stroke production that it is not hard to spot club-level players anywhere clearly influenced by Lin Dan’s rapid fire machine gun-like smashes or attempting Taufik’s natural Indonesian style backhand so reminiscent of Fung Permadi’s before him.

Weight of the World

Quite apart from their rivalry and racquet talent, their exalted status shows us there are at least two approaches to winning big.

Lin Dan forges his way past opponents by lacking preparation in no department. He is a simmering mixture of youth, speed, power, all the strokes, the right physique, mental toughness, and ambition, plus this extraordinary ability to swiftly pump up any of these qualities in excess of his adversaries. He has worked hard to be outstanding and plays to all his strengths. He is the complete player and rightly deserves to pull his shirt over his head and beat his chest about it.

Image "I have been ranked No. 1 in the world for two straight years and I think people can easily come to a conclusion on who is a better player for the whole year," Lin said during the Doha Asian Games. And throughout 2007, it never crossed his mind to let up.

Three years experience at number one has made him that much more formidable, but not invincible. It is prominent occasions, rather than opponents, that seem capable of derailing Lin Dan.

There was the first-round defeat to Ronald Susilo at the 2004 Olympics, runner-up finishes at Anaheim in 2005 and Doha in 2006, and, of course, the 2007 Sudirman Cup loss to Lee Chong Wei, which would hardly have stood out if not for his coach’s abrupt outburst and frustrated words. Of course, no one can win every time, but there has been a pattern in the exceptions to rule by Lin Dan.

Having grown up playing to roaring crowds in Jakarta, Taufik Hidayat appears not to be thrown by loud and climactic goings-on. He has exercised being true to himself on court, in career decisions, and when faced with microphones. He says the kind of things we wish we had thought of saying to our opponents like "We’ll see" or "I’ve been saving myself."

Taufik has lived through expectations foisted upon him, lean seasons, sporadic activity, and half-hearted performances. It took a while, but people have grown accustomed to that and kept watching. He is lucky. He would have been chopped from the roster in some badminton nations. Whilst others might train and train, he concentrated on growing to be more his own person, thus gaining in self-assurance and the Art of Knowing. The calm composure and relaxed hitting style on court are manifestations of the art.

Taufik may or may not succeed going all the way, but he is the perennial dark horse especially as he gets older because in essence he lugs no baggage on court except a racquet and a ‘feel like playing?’ mental state. The lightness enables him to totally be in the moment in matches when he summons the enthusiasm. Mid-career, when everyone was betting on the top ten, he shot through in Athens – so being an iconoclast can work but it is risky.

To enjoy 2008, let events unfold and be taken on their own merits. Enough time has passed since Anaheim and Doha. Player’s levels are not stagnant. Lin Dan and Taufik’s talents have matured from what we witnessed from 2004 to 2006.

Waiting for a Bigger Stage?

All circumstances surveyed, it appears to be more a combination of their paths not crossing and also them having not made special efforts to meet. It is too easy to encourage the conclusion that there has been intentional avoidance.

All good things are worth waiting for, the saying goes. Taking this perspective, it is not such a shame their itineraries did not match in January 2008. It ought to add to our eagerness, not disappointment.

Image This time last year, Lin Dan made the point that he relished playing Taufik, and at the same time it is a waste to meet in the first round. He alludes to more than that. Bring on a showdown on a big stage. There are three that fit that bill this year: The Thomas Cup, the All England, and the Olympic games. Taufik’s remaining personal motivations just happen to correspond to those: “I still have some titles I haven’t won yet. The people of my country expect me to do more. That’s what keeps me continuing to play badminton." (Japan, 2007.)

His coach Mulyo more recently added "Taufik’s dream is to retain the Olympic title in Beijing. Although he is the defending champion, he will not be under any pressure this time as players like Lin Dan, Bao Chunlai and Lee Chong Wei will be the main focus in the Olympics.

"I believe if the best of Taufik emerges in Beijing, he will retain the gold medal." (Xinhua News Agency, 2008.)

It is said that the first million dollars are the hardest to make. Try 1 billion rupiah (roughly US$105,876 in today’s terms), which was the cash bonus that the Indonesian government has once again promised for Olympic Gold medallists. Indonesia had no live television rights at the last Olympics. Their champions were personally motivated to perform perfectly whether or not the home fans were watching.

For the first time the Olympic Games are to be held in a badminton fanatical nation. One cannot imagine the scene. Lin Dan was blessed with Beijing winning the opportunity to host the Games during his peak years. Now the onus is on him to go all the way in August to the summit of national hero par excellence. Beijing represents a momentous personal and patriotic achievement on home soil never reached or ever to be repeated by another Chinese men’s singles shuttler. This is no ordinary gold medal.

The most beautiful match necessitates that the stakes be lofty. We know Lin Dan and Taufik Hidayat consider one another the Everest of their opponents. Not since those comments and the Doha Asian Games have Lin Dan and Taufik coveted the same thing at the same time as they do an Olympic Gold medal.

The Beijing Ultimatum

The Beijing ultimatum is not that simple though. Other class acts have announced their intentions too. Peter Gade would have to be the sentimental favourite. According to Wikipedia, he “may be the most popular badminton player in the world” and “his fair-play spirit is a well known fact”. What is significant and true is that he is beloved in China.

Individual destinies must also contend with the gods of the Olympics and their blasé constitution towards established front runners – Ra Kyung Min’s luck in mixed doubles springs to mind, and Ji Xinpeng struck a blow in the right hour of 2000 and pulled off a humdinger ahead of fancied names like Hendrawan, Xia Xuanze, Peter Gade and Taufik (himself the #1 seed back then) for the gold. And who would have guessed at the start that it would be Shon Seung Mo and Taufik in the 2004 final? The 21-point rally system this time only adds to the unpredictability when the scores are close and very certain doom when they are not. No one should be complacent as everyone turns hunter and sniper. Fade in the tension-building John Powell film soundtrack for the Bourne films.

Image The power of the Olympics is that it draws every strand to a point – cross those fingers hard, folks – including a Lin Dan-Taufik Hidayat rendezvous. It will not be for the sake of badminton alone, but to underline our sport’s uniqueness in front of the world, where all sorts of athleticism are on spectacular exhibition, and for the first time in a nation fanatical about badminton. One youngster watching will go on to take badminton gold in 2020 and conceivably he or she will have never laid eyes upon badminton before this point. Lin Dan and Taufik have this to play for, the longevity of badminton as well as their records not merely written in a book but in a heart that was so inspired that it repeated their feats. It is not for present champions to contemplate but for them to do.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

No question, Lin Dan and Taufik Hidayat are consistently the most newsworthy topic in the sport of badminton and that has kept our sport alive and well known. As far as the horizon, their rivalry is irreplaceable. You can count on one hand how many tussles are left, not just for the year but forever.

Savour what is left. Both men will be looking forward to their last encounters to come. If their destinies are truly entwined, we wish for a Beijing Olympics showdown so that spectators and players alike can give two thumbs up to two of the very best in badminton.

Badzine’s coverage of the Olympics is brought to you by YONEX

Aaron Wong

About Aaron Wong

Aaron Wong only ever coveted badminton's coolest shot - a reverse backhand clear. He is renowned for two other things: 1) Writing tournament previews that adjust the focus between the panorama of the sport's progress, down to the microscopic level of explaining the striking characteristics of players; 2) Dozing off during men's doubles at the London Olympic Games. Contact him at: aaron @ badzine.net