India Open Super 750: In the shadow of former great Lee Chong Wei, Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia

It is not easy being Lee Zii Jia. The Malaysian shuttler is a headline-maker back home. Everything he says is newsworthy, every match he plays is an event, any loss he suffers is a stick to beat him with while his wins are a source of great joy for his legion of fans.

The former world No.2 is coming into the Olympic year after struggling in 2023. He finished strongly enough but there was a phase in the middle of the year, where he had four straight first-round exits. He also missed out on an Asian Games medal at the cost of HS Prannoy making history for India. But the 25-year-old came up with an impressive performance in New Delhi on Thursday against world No.5 Jonatan Christie to enter the quarterfinals at the India Open Super 750. Dominating the Indonesian star for the most part, Lee put together a performance that sent out a reminder of why he remains a top competitor on tour.

“Last year I had a tough start, and now I am in the quarterfinal of the second event. It’s a good start for me. New year, new season. I will keep on going,” Lee told reporters after his win. “The focus on court worked for me. Did everything the coach taught me, the strategy clicked.”

From the word go against a tricky opponent, he seemed dialled in. The duo were tied 4-4 from their past meetings, and they were locked in together for a while in this match too before Lee pulled away. The one common theme to emerge from his interactions with the media after the two wins here so far were that he is searching for balance. “I am trying to find my best performance, most stable game. My team and I are working a lot to make it happen. Hopefully this year we can see more improvement from me,” he said.

Interestingly, after his win against Brian Yang in the opening round, Lee had said: “Maybe I will lose tomorrow but I have to believe in the process and never give up. One day we will achieve the target.” There is a sense of acceptance to what day-to-day life on the tour can bring.

Going independent

Early in 2022, Lee made the headlines far and wide in the world of badminton as he decided to leave the Malaysian national set-up and go professional. In badminton, a majority of the top shuttlers are still part of their countries’ federations but Viktor Axelsen had set a precedent recently to show why it is a feasible avenue.

But the Badminton Association of Malaysia decided to refuse to enter Lee in tournaments for two years, effectively meaning a suspension. Former Danish shuttler HK Vittinghus termed it a disaster for the sport arguing that he hadn’t done anything whatsoever to discredit the sport nor their country. The decision was eventually retracted after heavy backlash, but Lee has been in the spotlight even more since.

In a July 2023 article on New Straits Times, titled ‘Is Zii Jia worth the trouble?’, it was written “he is becoming an excess baggage in Malaysian sports” questioning the Malaysian’s decision to take a break from badminton after his first-round defeat at the Indonesia Open against India’s Lakshya Sen. The report alleged that Lee was pampered and that his fans go to any lengths to defend him even when he is not playing well. Whether that argument held true or not, it was a bizarre take on a man visibly frustrated from his results and struggling to find the passion for the game.

But Lee appears unfazed, at least on the outside. When asked what he did during that break, Lee said with a smile: “Just rest… sleep.. that’s all I do during the break. 2023 was one of the toughest times in my career. Everyone has a limit, when you reach it, you have to take a break and rest to find the passion again.”

Lee Chong Wei comparisons

The sword that often hangs over the head of Lee is the comparison with Lee Chong Wei, the all-time great from Malaysia for whom he has been seen as the heir. The All England triumph in 2021 added heft to the expectations, as did the Asian title in 2022 that felt like vindication for his move to be independent. But major success has been elusive since.

“As a Malaysian No 1, people always compare you with Chong Wei. So I can’t get rid of that. Only if I changed my country, but that’s impossible,” he joked. “So, it is something that I have to face for my entire career. If I fail, then I will have failed. So it’s either success or failure. I have to face this pressure.”

He admits that relationship with Chong Wei has been a bit ‘weird’ since turning professional but with time, he’s getting better at dealing with it. “Year by year, I am getting mature to face this kind of pressure. For me, I haven’t found the best solution yet but we are working on it,” he said, adding that the team he has around him helps deal with a lot of this.

Most importantly, in his quest to be more stable, Lee is learning to love badminton again. “Yeah of course (I am enjoying badminton again). I am getting more used to it, sometimes when you lose again and lose again, it can be a good thing. I have learned so much.”

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