SINGAPORE - Lee Zii Jia's All England Open triumph almost did not happen.
The Malaysian shuttler, who turns 23 on Monday (March 29), was given a show cause letter by the Badminton Association of Malaysia after a poor outing in Thailand in January, when he fell at the first round of the Toyota Thailand Open, and then lost all three of his group games at the BWF World Tour Finals.
In a Zoom interview with global media on Thursday, the world No. 8 said: "It was a struggle. I had no confidence, my mind was a blank, and my coaches were as stressed as me."
While he admitted to "shutting down and becoming anti-social" when things do not go well, Lee also responded positively by attempting to find solutions on the court through sheer hard work.
Instead of returning to his Alor Setar home in Kedah for Chinese New Year, he trained double three-hour sessions almost every day on his own at the Akademi Badminton Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
Although there was an improvement, he still lost to the lower-ranked Thai teenager Kunlavut Vitidsarn at the Swiss Open semi-final in March and was given the option of pulling out of the All England Open Badminton Championships if he felt he was not ready.
But Lee pressed on and went on to record his first win over Japan's world No. 1 Kento Momota in the quarter-final, before outlasting world No. 2 Viktor Axelsen 30-29, 20-22, 21-9 in Sunday's final to become the fourth Malaysian shuttler to win the men's singles at the prestigious event.
Malaysia men's singles head coach Hendrawan, who had broken down in an earlier interview when asked about Lee's poor results, told The Star: "He told me, 'Coach, I'm feeling much better now and my game is getting there, so I want to give the All England a shot'.
"But not in my wildest dreams, that he would go on to beat the best two players in the world... and become the champion. For a player who has lost his self-belief to bounce back in such a short time and put up the best performance of his career, it's near impossible.
"Obviously, we know very well that Zii Jia is capable of beating anyone when he plays to his true level. We never doubted that, it's just his confidence."
Hendrawan also backed his protege to shine and even medal at the Olympics if he continues to build his mental fortitude.
As Malaysia's latest badminton hero, murmurs of becoming the successor of the legendary Lee Chong Wei are inevitable. And the comparison is both a compliment and a curse, with the weight of a nation on the shoulders of the 1.86m player.
During the interview, Zii Jia repeatedly stated he does not like the tag and wanted to be known in his own right, even as he showed his deference to the retired superstar who won three Olympic silver medals.
He said: "I learnt a lot from his never-say-die attitude. Even though he is already a legend, he is always fighting to win that first Olympics or World Championship .
"Nobody can replace Lee Chong Wei, and it doesn't take anything away from his status even if I go on to win the Olympics or World Championship. That will not mean I am better than him.
"But I am not the second Lee Chong Wei. I am Lee Zii Jia, and I have my own journey. I believe I can achieve my own breakthroughs, and this All England win is a good starting point in my journey."
Next up for Zii Jia is the Malaysian Open in May and he is determined not to let his latest achievement be his last, having learnt from the slump he experienced after reaching last year's All England semi-final.
Noting that the All England was Momota's first tournament since his accident last year and that the Chinese and Indonesian teams did not compete, he added: "I did beat both the world No. 1 and 2 at one tournament, which is never easy, and I should be given credit for that.
"It is a surprise for me to win, and I want to stay humble but remain confident and keep training hard. I will enjoy this win, but it won't be that because I am All-England champion now, I train five days when others train seven days.
"Everyone in the top 10 has the same standard, the difference is consistency. If you are able to maintain good performances, you can get the good results to stay in the top 10 and move into the top five, top three and fight for world No. 1."