Arms raised, racquet strewn by the net, Daren Liew celebrated his win. It was another triumph over a higher ranked player for the world no 23, this time HS Prannoy (ranked 20) in the Premier Badminton League. An exhibition event it may have been, every win has started to have more meaning now for the Malaysian.
For years the once prodigy pipped to be the next Lee Chong Wei held the promise of continuing the legacy of a man who has won three Olympic and four World Championship medals, along with the world no 1 spot of course. But through those expectations Liew suffered a downfall.
"In Malaysia, everyone kept saying that I was the next Lee Chong Wei," he says. "But he’s set the bar too high. It’s very hard to be like him."The pressure got to him, and the 31-year-old was reduced to being one of the lower ranked extras, a pretender looking for success in a field dominated by a handful of players-including his illustrious compatriot.
That changed at the World Championships this year. Liew battled through a field that included world no 11 Jonatan Christie, India’s star Kidambi Srikanth, and Japan’s Kanta Tsuneyama to script a shock semi-final finish-and a bronze medal.
"I never expected it," he says. "In the first round against Christie, nobody expected me to win. That match actually did well for my confidence and I started to play better and better and much more freely. I started to believe in myself and that I stand a chance to do something."
What he did manage to do was win his career’s biggest ever title-no easy feat by any stretch. But not his first ever. That title came at the 2012 French Open Superseries, along with a wave of expectations.
"People started to expect more from me and that gave me a lot of pressure. I started to struggle," he recalls. "I tried hard and some matches just didn’t come my way. I started to doubt my own talent and many times, I thought about giving up."
The lack of results started to torment the shuttler to the point that he fell into a pit of depression. In his early 20s, brimming with talent, he considered quitting the sport. It all escalated at the final of the 2014 Thomas Cup, when Malaysia lost 3-2 to Japan.
"I lost the deciding match (against former world no 12 Takuma Ueda)," he says. "It was the lowest point of my career. I felt that it was just better for me to stop playing because there was a lot of pressure and I just couldn’t perform."
But he stuck to the sport. Egged on by his parents and coaches, he continued in the grind of training and competing, looking for a glimmer of hope in each bitter defeat. On the way he even decided to take the drastic decision of splitting with the Malaysian national team and going solo.
It meant that he now had to organise his own training sessions, transportation to events, and even try to coax potential sponsors to take a punt on his career.
"That happens when you decide to become an inpidual player," he explains. "The team was demanding results from me and I was not producing. So I thought that maybe if I became an independent player, I’d become better. Now I don’t feel that pressure and I feel more free. So it’s much better." Floating under the radar, he travelled to Nanjing in August with no great hope for himself at the World Championships, but left after becoming only the third Malaysian men’s singles player to win a medal at the major.
"Back home it was a big surprise for everyone because nobody expected me to go far at all," he says. "Now whenever I’m home, people have started recognising me much more. They stop me if they see me at a mall or something like that, and ask for photographs."
He pauses, and then with a smile: "I can get used to that."
With Chong Wei temporarily out of the tour after being diagnosed with cancer, Liew asserts that the Malaysian public has started looking towards his performances yet again, given that he is now the highest ranked player from the country.
Now though, looking back at his career, he feels much more prepared for it.
"Things don’t effect me that much. I’m older now, and have more experience. It’s harder to handle when you’re younger, but now I’ve been through the worst." The run in Nanjing was all about building momentum for himself. At the PBL (where he plays for the Ahmedabad Smashers), along with a cool paycheck of Rs 33 lakh, he’s looking for a confident start to the 2019 calendar year. Every win counts.