Lin Dan or Lee Chong Wei? Viktor Axelsen or Kento Momota? Chen Yufei or Tai Tzu Ying? An Olympic gold medal – like a coronation title worn by the world’s best on the biggest podium – separates the first name from the second, in each of those cases.
The badminton circuit, on the other hand, runs year-round and measures consistency. The last names in those three comparisons will pimp the first on the large number of Tour titles. But you could sprinkle it all year round and painstakingly string together title runs week after week after week. You could play one of the most beautiful, elegant, and powerfully shimmering badminton games, like Tai Tzu or Chong Wei, winning every day in the shuttle’s many ports of call in those four years between the Olympics. And yet, in the name-memory game, they ultimately lose to the Olympic or World champions, when the history of that one biweekly quadrennial is written.
However, a name like Lee Chong Wei defiantly stands in the way of claiming that crown wins are more important than track consistency. That is to say, a single Olympic or World Championship crown is more important than a slew of Tour victories when greatness, legacy and the like are chronicled in volumes of triumph.
The Malaysian has none of those major titles, and badminton will consider himself poorer as a result. While three Olympic silver medals (that’s eight consecutive years of reaching the biggest final in the sport, 2008 through 2016) and as many world runner-up medals indicate a certain pinnacle of consistency in itself. However, the official consistency mark is a whopping 69 Tour titles ahead of him, safely pegging him as the best of all Tour times.
Lin Dan has 59, although the 2 Olympic golds and 5 world titles apart from that put him in an exclusive stratosphere.
From the recent crop, Kento Momota holds 29 track titles and 2 Asian Championships in addition to his two world titles; Axelsen’s equivalent is 28, and 3 European titles, plus 2 World Championships. However, the tall Dane is ahead in comparison to his Olympic gold in Tokyo, cruel to Momota in his backyard.
Yet there was that period through 2019-20 when the Japanese automatic went on to title with 10 kroner in the Tour, his run once again being brutally curtailed by a disorienting road accident in Malaysia. But while his peachy form of Sunday successes lasted, Momota seemed invincible. And his scalp, even today, with his game looking seriously diminished, remains of great value to upstarts.
With men’s singles badminton not quite giving in to the inelegant GOAT battle that could pit him against Lin Dan and in which Chong Wei could be unnecessarily pecked, the ‘who is bigger’ debate between Axelsen – Momota crackles with many more flammable embers .
Add the ever-exciting women’s singles pack to the argument – Chen Yufei (10 Tour titles), Tai Tzu Ying (14), Akane Yamaguchi (10), Carolina Marin (7), and you have subthreads that can launch counters and send counters to those counters all day. It really buzzes when you consider that Marin has three world titles and an Olympic victory, and Tour leader Tai Tzu Ying has neither.
The pot starts to stir well when you add PV Sindhu to the mix – 2 Olympic medals, but no gold yet and an unrivaled 5 World Cup medals – including gold, in the current game. That’s elite consistency, making the rest of her Tour record obsolete. Her Tour tally is 4. But imagine having more World Cup medals than circuit wins; it is a remarkable achievement over a decade to appear again and again on that one anointed opportunity in August to contest the corporate end of the world. The bragging rights on the big stage are hard to mute.
And since none of this is enough to confuse the Olympics vs. track consistency debate, there’s Korean An Se Young who has won 11 Tour titles by the age of 20. Chen Yufei has a lead over TTY in the grand final, but does the Tokyo Games gold push the Chinese champ ahead of the Taiwanese? And since badminton may never say goodbye to graceful beauty, don’t Ratchanok Intanon’s four Tour titles and the 2013 world title even count?
Perception patterns are wonderful to indulge in on a lazy Sunday. And like a kaleidoscope, with every turn of the triangular lenses you could find a different yet equally stunning optical geometry as the last one you left behind. Yet those coronation or consistent counts indicate priorities and definitively mark the temperaments of the great occasion. You’d expect everyone to peak for the Olympics, although in badminton the whole herd travels to almost all tournaments anyway, so your Olympic draw might just be easier to negotiate than your normal 32-player Super 1000 field.
The consistency vs. coronation debate is perhaps best broken by the last-minute invitee to the season-ending World Tour Finals – Singaporean Loh Kean Yew.
In a 2022 season where 2021 World Championship winner Loh Kean Yew attempts to turn that passing one-off ascendancy of his Huelva title into recurring consistency, the answer to the question becomes even more elusive. LKY had 7 quarterfinals from 14 tournaments and no title.
But that’s the label of a world champion once crowned, you have to live with that halo doubling up as a constant, lingering spotlight in the back of your mind that keeps reminding you of that one glorious day when you were the best in the world, that sets the highest standard for everything that follows. Honestly, it’s excellent pressure to have, as it’s that perpetual poke from the world title that forces LKY to take its game to the next level. It even set him on a journey of self-discovery as he told CNA Singapore, “My personal goal now is to try and find myself first. I’m in the process of finding my better self… on the track.
He would tell CNA how he is looking to understand ‘chiong’ again – which translates as running ahead. “That kind of self that feels (into a game) like an underdog, that chiong (forward) with no worries, just playing, just enjoying while being focused, that confident guy. Loh would equate consistency with confidence. “Every athlete’s dream is to play with a lot of confidence. At the World Championships it was good because I was super confident. I didn’t know I was confident, but I seemed confident. And I played without fear.”
It would be a bit unrealistic to stay fearless and in great physical shape all season – with setbacks every week making that one light-hearted week-long run at the World Championship seem easier. And then there is that eternal quest to rediscover that same ditto shape or feeling as from December 2021, which may never come back.
Loh has shown glimpses of that raw power and speed in his blows, his unreal fast defense in small bursts in matches. His bonsai backhand serve – it’s basically like releasing a backhand with one hand – remains consistent. “Personally I have my own goal (for tournaments) but I don’t really have to tell anyone about it. The best thing is to know your own circumstances and just do it yourself. People don’t need to know,” he would wisely tell CNA.
He was willing to bide his time and stick to the process, looking at the bigger picture. “Of course the process will not go that fast. It will certainly take some time. When it comes, it comes. Some people take a month… some people take three months, six months, a year, two years,” he added.
While the season has been largely indifferent, the early exit from the 2022 World Championship took some of the pressure off. The chiong attack ahead remains his chosen path as he attempts to turn the world title crowning into consistent reign – a reverse journey to everyone winning each week, but missing out on the Biggie that will be remembered.