The role of a superstar in any sport is highly significant. A superstar not only brings laurels for his country, but he also helps to build a legacy and inspire talented youngsters to rise to the challenge and carry forward that legacy.
For Malaysian badminton, Lee Chong Wei has been the biggest shining star and the guiding light for nearly two decades. He has been the reason the country has been on the badminton map.
Lee’s presence has enriched Malaysian badminton for years and has made it a regular contender for the biggest titles in the sport.
With Lee now about to turn 36 in a few days and recovering from nose cancer treatment, it is understandable that Malaysia will not be able to enjoy Lee’s wizardry on the court for a long time. It is imperative that the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) has its next generation ready once Lee hangs up the racquet.
What awaits Malaysia’s men’s singles when the days of Lee Chong Wei are over? Is Malaysia gearing up for that inevitable situation? Will there be a void or are there young stars aiming to spread their wings and carry Lee’s legacy forward?
An in-depth look into Malaysia’s bunch of upcoming shuttlers indeed raises hopes. A few youngsters can be identified as the flag-bearers for the next generation.
Inspired by Lee Chong Wei’s exploits, they are now shaping up to be the ones who can continue to keep Malaysian badminton on the forefront. Although one cannot expect them to instantly get the kind of incredible success that Chong Wei earned, they could still make a lot of difference for the sport in their country when they mature.
Lee Zii Jia
The name of Lee Zii Jia comes at the top of the mind, given his glory at the Chinese Taipei Open at the beginning of the month. Considering the fact that he had been struggling with his transition to the senior circuit and he had just returned to action after recovering from a back injury, his triumph was unexpected indeed. It was a performance for the ages and it quickly established the 20-year-old as the front-runner to take Lee’s place in a couple of years from now.
Lee Zii Jia, who won the bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in 2016, had only one senior title at the start of this Super 300 tournament and it was a lower-tier title at the Polish International Series in 2017.
Jia fought back from match points, showed his stamina in long duels and passed just about every test that truly showed his potential. One of his victims included the World No. 4 Chou Tien Chen, who had been riding high on his Korea Open title win a week before that. His win made him just the second Malaysian besides Chong Wei to taste success in the top tier of the BWF circuit since 2013.
What is striking about Jia is that he is very grounded and understands the need for patience. The win sure is a big source of motivation for the youngster but he knows it fully well that one top title cannot change things. All he needs to do is to keep working hard on the areas where he needs to improve, and he is fully committed to doing that.
Major achievements: Bronze medal at the 2016 World Junior Championships; 2017 Polish International Series title; 2018 Chinese Taipei Open title
Leong Jun Hao
Leong Jun Hao is another shuttler who can claim to be one of Lee’s successors. He has already displayed his tremendous fighting spirit and his skills in both the junior and the senior level. The 19-year-old won the Asia Junior Championships title and the silver medal at the World Junior Championships in 2017, underlining his immense talent.
That year itself, he started making rapid strides on the senior circuit, reaching the final of the Malaysia International Challenge tournament. He started 2018 with a bang and stole the limelight with his wonderful show of perseverance and determination. From the qualifying rounds, he made it to the final of the Thailand Masters Super 300 tournament. After six consecutive victories, his brave run finally came to an end at the hands of the Indonesian veteran, Tommy Sugiarto.
Hao did not stop there and went on to win his first international senior title at the Finnish Open — an International Challenge level tournament.
He has left no doubt that he indeed has the traits of a champion. He only needs to be groomed well in order to give his very best at the highest level of the sport.
Major achievements: World Junior Championships bronze medal in 2017; Asian Junior Championships gold medal in 2017; Finnish Open International Challenge title in 2018; runner-up at the 2018 Thailand Masters
Cheam June Wei
Cheam June Wei is another youngster to look out for, especially after the way he has been making steady progress this year. He is 21 years and is slightly older and more experienced than the other two in this list.
He even has a connection with the great Lee Chong Wei. As a junior, he honed his skills under Teh Peng Huat, who had once guided Chong Wei too. Wei aspires to be a world champion and he is slowly but surely taking steps towards that goal.
He won the mixed doubles gold at the Nanjing Youth Olympics in 2014, apart from bagging the Dutch Junior Open title in 2015. Those twin accomplishments at the junior level made people sit up and take notice of him.
Since then, he has been putting together his game and strengthening himself to be a force to reckon with at the senior stage.
In 2017, he took it a step further by finishing as the runner-up at the Malaysia International Series before his breakthrough year began in 2018. He reached three finals, and converted one of those into a title at the Dutch International Series. The continued progress has made him a stable member of the world’s top 100 and that is surely just the start for him.
Major achievements: Mixed doubles gold at 2014 Youth Olympics; 2015 Dutch Open Junior title; 2017 Malaysia International Series runner-up; 2018 Dutch International Series title; 2018 Austrian and Finnish Open International Challenge runner-up
Although these youngsters have already impressed, Malaysian fans need to give them the required time to fully develop their game so that they can keep flourishing.