On the evening of 20th August 2016, the legend goes that a made-up letter, purportedly handwritten by Chinese shuttler Lin Dan, was delivered to Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei, a few hours after the two had been involved in an epic semi-final that had ended in a three-game victory for the perennial nearly man, Lee.
The Malaysian, after living in the imposing shadow of Super Dan right through their concurrent badminton careers, and after losing the singles gold medal to the Chinese ace at both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, had finally found the Great Reaper smiling down on him, and compensating him for all those years of pain and anguish.
At the end of a magnificent 82-minute men's singles semi-final of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Lee had been able to wrap up a pulsating, nerve-jangling 15-21, 21-11, 22-20 triumph over the five-time world champion, and narrow the head-to-head career meetings record between the two to 12-25. The two arch-rivals had then embraced at the net and exchanged sweat-soaked T-shirts.
A somewhat stilted English translation of the Chinese text of Lin's apocryphal letter has been reproduced here verbatim:
"The 37th time I faced you across from the net, we have come full circle from the first time we met. To be honest, the moment when I lost to you, I had no regrets. You are my greatest opponent, and I was willing to lose to you with no regrets. When I hugged you, I truly felt that the ten years with you has been like a dream.
"You have been the biggest reason why I have continued to compete. I will keep your jersey as one of my most cherished possessions, and tell my future children about you. I would tell them that there is someone named Lee Chong Wei " my greatest opponent, and my greatest friend."
On Thursday, 13th June 2019, when Lee, in a voice choked with emotion, and eyes misty from unshed, held-back tears, announced his retirement from professional badminton to a jam-packed press conference in Putrajaya, the decision did not come as a surprise to the world badminton fraternity which had been keenly following the course of his year-long indisposition.
"It (retirement) was a tough decision to make, but I was left with no option after my recent consultation with doctors in Japan last month," said Lee, who had been diagnosed in July last year with nose cancer, and had done all he could to shake off the ailment and resume his badminton career.
After a month-long treatment in Taiwan in October 2018, he had announced at a press conference in November that he had no intention of retiring, and that he would give Olympic glory one final shot at Tokyo next year.
Lee resumed training in early-January 2019, and initially targeted a competitive return at the All-England in March or his home Malaysian Open (which he has won a record 12 times between 2005 and 2018) in April. Lee even took to Facebook on 4 April this year to reiterate his desire to compete in the 2020 Olympics, and resume his long-standing rivalry with Lin.
But after failing several times to get the green light from his doctors, he was left with no option but to accept that his badminton days were numbered. It was with heartfelt anguish that Datuk (the Malaysian equivalent of the British 'Lord') Lee brought the curtain down on an illustrious 19-year career that has cemented his place in the annals of badminton as one of its greatest-ever exponents.
Consider the following vital statistics of the career of the otherwise supremely fit and extremely hardworking Malaysian, who will turn 37 on 21 October this year, and has actually been eligible to compete on the world senior circuit for the past two years:
· Lee was World No 1 for a staggering 349 weeks; that is, just 15 weeks under seven years, as the world's best shuttler. The stint included an uninterrupted 199-week stretch between 2008 and 2012 as Numero Uno in the world.
· He bagged 69 titles during his career, including a staggering 46 titles in the now-defunct Superseries, the Badminton World Federation's (BWF) elite circuit, that has become the World Tour since January 2018.
· Lee won the gold medal at three Commonwealth Games, spread over a dozen years " at Melbourne in 2006, New Delhi in 2010 and Gold Coast in 2018. Injury prevented him from taking part in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
· He was a three-time Olympic silver medallist in Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016. When he beat Lin Dan in the semi-finals in Rio, it was third time lucky, following his defeats to the Chinese left-hander in the Beijing and London finals. But he could not capture the gold, losing to Chen Long in the final.
· Lee finished runner-up in three world championship outings " in London (2011) and Guangzhou (2013) to Lin Dan, and in Jakarta (2015) to Chen Long. He was also a losing finalist to Chen at Copenhagen in 2014, but that result was scratched from the record books due to a doping offence on Lee's part.
· His keen 15-year-long rivalry with Lin encompassed 40 head-to-head meetings at international level between 2004 and 2018; and ended in the Chinese southpaw's favour by a 28-12 scoreline.
Lee remains one of the few international badminton players who had to struggle very little to make it to the top, although it did help that he had prodigious natural talent, allied to a willingness to work extremely hard to hone it. Indeed, when he encapsulated his life story in biography in 2012, revealing the steps he took during his formative years, the book, 'Dare to be a Champion', became a runaway best-seller in the Asia-Pacific region.
It was young Lee's father who encouraged him to take up the game in 1993 at the age of eleven and it took no more than another six years before he was spotted by former Malaysia No 1 and national coach, Misbun Sidek (contemporary of India's Prakash Padukone and Denmark's Morten Frost), and drafted into the national team at the age of 17.
That was the start of a glittering career that saw the wiry, heavily muscled Lee dominate international badminton rankings in a manner that even his more successful (in the matter of stellar world titles won) Chinese rivals, Lin and Chen, could not achieve.
The Malaysian was lightning fast on his feet, and his court coverage was exemplary. His trademark strokes were tight netplay that forced his rivals to boost the shuttle to midcourt, and powerful crosscourt smashes from both flanks. He was also temperamentally very strong against all rivals, barring his nemesis, Lin, who always managed to get inside his skull and create mayhem there!
Listing his achievements at the Superseries tournaments level would take up far more space can be employed for this tribute. Suffice it to say that he bagged 69 international titles during his 19-year long career, including 46 Superseries crowns, and was so much of a lion in his own den that he won the Malaysian Open the round dozen times in the presence of his adoring fans.
Lee was very much his own man, and crystal-clear in his mind as to the style and quantum of training that suited him best. He was involved in a couple of highly publicised rows with Frost, who functioned as Malaysian national coach for a couple of years at the midpoint of the ongoing decade, and attempted to bring some changes into the player's training procedure.
He also had several run-ins with the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM), who signally failed to impose its diktat on him in the matter of attendance in national camps " for the simple reason that he always had the performance on his side, and his No 1 position in his country was never under threat. In other words, they always needed him more than he needed them!
Still, during his emotional farewell speech this morning, Lee had the grace to thank the BAM stalwarts and acknowledge their contribution in moulding him into the world's pre-eminent badminton player of the decade between 2008 and 2018. It remains to be seen whether his unfortunate, premature exit from the sport also ends up depriving his greatest rival, Lin, of the motivation to make one final run on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics men's singles gold medal.