Story and photos by Don Hearn. Additional photos courtesy of Yonex Korea.
After 10 years playing domestically for Samsung Electromechanics, Lee Yong Dae has been signed by the Yonex Badminton Team, where he will play with fellow Samsung alumnus Ha Tae Kwon. In 2007, after emerging from high school already with three Grand Prix titles to his name, Lee Yong Dae began a ten-year stint with Samsung. In fact, he was already wearing the new team’s logo when he and current Samsung coach Jung Jae Sung won their first Superseries title, at the Korea Open in January 2007.
Kim Chul Woong (pictured above), President of Yonex’s local Korean subsidiary Dong Seung Trading, officially welcomed Lee Yong Dae to the team in a ceremony at the Stanford Hotel in Seoul, presenting him with a team jersey and an Arc Saber 11 racquet, which he will use in his first outing with his new domestic pro team at the Spring Classic team event in March. Kim pointed out that it was a return, of sorts, as the company was still outfitting Lee and the entire Korean national team in 2008, when Lee Yong Dae shot to stardom with his gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, with Lee Hyo Jung.
“In my new role as a player for the Yonex team, I hope to work hard to promote Korean badminton and badminton itself,” said Lee Yong Dae at the press conference that followed his welcoming ceremony. “I don’t know how much longer my playing career will last but even after I stop playing, I intend to continue working to develop the sport.
“With this contract, I’m coming to new equipment but also to a new team and I really see this as a new challenge. I’m excited to be working with Head Coach Ha Tae Kwon and so now I wonder if my playing career might go on a little longer.
“As for my future plans, at this point, I’m participating in leagues overseas. Of course, participating in the domestic events with the Yonex team is the top priority but I also plan to play in leagues abroad. As well, if the opportunities arise to play in tournaments such as Grand Prix Gold events, I would like to take them, too.”
Asked to comment on his recent experiences playing in professional leagues overseas, Lee said, “Playing in the leagues such as the recent Premier Badminton League in India, it feels really great to be a player. The facilities, the marketing, the television advertising are all so well done and with the attention from the fans, it’s such that it really inspires you to play well. I really hope that this sort of attention can come to badminton in Korea, too.
“I played in Indonesia last year as well and every time my name is called, the fans welcome me like a local star. The reception has been the same in India and China, too, and it really makes me feel great.”
About the partnerships he’s had so far, Lee said, “Having played in several leagues already overseas, I can say that there have been players it has been difficult adjusting to playing with but even with unfamiliar partners we are always both working hard to play well together so it’s always a good experience.
“As for players I would like to play with, the main ones are the players I’ve had great rivalries with – especially players like Fu Haifeng, Hendra Setiawan, and Tan Boon Heong – and I’ve had chances to play with some of them already and those have been really memorable experiences.”
As he had been at the Korea Open last September, Lee Yong Dae was asked to comment on his decision to retire from the national team and what changes that has brought: “When I made the decision to retire from the national team after the Rio Olympics, there was a variety of reasons. One was for the sake of the younger players. I was able to win an Olympic gold when I was still quite young and it’s time now to clear the way for my younger compatriots to come up and make their own contributions to Korean badminton. I’m still available to answer the call and if the national team should really need me back, I’ll be prepared. I also have a lot of new team-mates on the Yonex team and many are younger players and I look forward to working with Coach Ha Tae Kwon to help them develop in some new partnerships with this team.
“One thing I won’t miss about the national team is having to get up at 5:40 for early morning training. To be honest, I am starting to miss certain things about my life at the national training centre. Of course, there were stressful times, too, but I had so many great memories. As for training with my pro team, I don’t want to suggest that it is something we’ll be taking lightly. Still, I’m not a young player now and I’ve put in a lot of playing and training hours already. One advantage to training just with my team, now, is that I’ll have more time to concentrate on working on the weak points of my game.”
Ha Tae Kwon, who became Head Coach of the Yonex team two years ago, then commented on what this new addition will mean for his team: “The effect of having Lee Yong Dae join our team is already being felt among the other players and we have high hopes that it will lead to better results for the Yonex team in the future. My goal is always for my team to win but so far, our results have been lacking. It’s going to put some pressure on Lee Yong Dae to contribute to the team’s success but we are going to do everything we can to become a winning team.
“If it turns out that extra training is what is required, I’ll also implement early-morning workouts for the team,” said Ha, eliciting a round of chuckles from both Lee Yong Dae and the assembled journalists.
Yonex also announced recently that it was bidding to get back the sponsorship deal for the Korean national badminton team and that decision is expected to come from the Badminton Korea Association this week.
Lee Yong Dae is slated to make his second appearance in the Djarum Superliga in Indonesia later this month but he will be back in Korea in March to lead the Yonex team as it attempts to win a domestic team title for the first time since 2012.