Lee hailed as 'national hero'

Malaysian PM and many others laud feat while shuttler savours 'very special moment'

While Lee Zii Jia's success shows Malaysian badminton is in good hands, the All-England did not boast a top-level field this year.
While Lee Zii Jia's success shows Malaysian badminton is in good hands, the All-England did not boast a top-level field this year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KUALA LUMPUR • Lee Zii Jia's dramatic All England Open triumph has reignited his country's hopes of success at the Tokyo Olympics, even without retired badminton great Lee Chong Wei.

The young Malaysian star defeated Denmark's Viktor Axelsen 30-29, 20-22, 21-9 on Sunday to capture one of the sport's most prestigious tournaments.

It was his first success at the Birmingham event and the 1.86m Kedah native will also draw confidence from beating two-time world champion Kento Momota, who was returning to international action after being injured in a car crash in Malaysia last year, in the quarter-finals.

Lee, 22, was thrilled despite not having a crowd to witness his big moment. He said: "I think both of us played very well until the third game, when Axelsen lost a bit of focus and that's the moment I had the advantage.

"I just can't describe my feelings now. I'm happy, sad and excited all coming in the one time. It is a very special moment for me."

Axelsen, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, was gracious in defeat and added: "I used a lot of energy, probably too much, in the first two rounds. He deserves to be the champion this week."

The win added to hopes that Malaysia has found a player to continue the country's success in badminton following the 2019 retirement of Chong Wei, one of the greatest players of his generation.

The former world No. 1 was seen for years as Malaysia's best chance to claim their first Olympic gold medal but fell agonisingly short three times in finals, twice to his great rival Lin Dan (2008, 2012) and then to another Chinese Chen Long at the 2016 Rio edition.

Aside from Chong Wei's three silvers, Malaysia have won a further four silvers and four bronzes at the Summer Games, with badminton accounting for eight of 11 medals.

Before the final against Axelsen, Chong Wei, 38, said Lee is a medal contender at the Tokyo Games if he could maintain his recent form and added: "This All England has served Zii Jia well, I hope he learns from it and uses it as a stepping stone for the Olympics this year."

After Lee's victory, Chong Wei, who won four All England titles, congratulated his compatriot but also advised him to keep working hard.

"I was so impressed by his splendid performance against Axelsen, whereby he displayed a great attacking game and defended very well every time the Dane tried to score a point with his smashes," Chong Wei, who will be Malaysia's chef de mission for the Tokyo Games, told Bernama yesterday.

"I am sure his coaches Hendrawan and Datuk Tey Seu Bock will give him even tougher training to prepare for the Olympics."

The waves of optimism was repeated all around Malaysia.

"Well done Lee Zii Jia! You are a national hero," Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin posted on Facebook after the final.

"Use this victory as a catalyst to work harder and to become greater in future."

The Star newspaper praised 10th-ranked Lee's victory as a "smashing breakthrough on the international stage", and declared: "A new star is born".

Norza Zakaria, president of the Badminton Association of Malaysia, praised Lee's victory as a "real achievement".

"It augurs well with our plan to bring in new young players after the retirement of Lee Chong Wei... and to maintain Malaysia's presence on the international stage as a powerhouse," he said.

It came just months before the virus-delayed Tokyo Olympics but some Asian countries, notably powerhouses China, did not send players to the All England tournament.

Norza refused to be drawn on Lee's Olympic chances. "I don't want to pressure him. My advice to him is to stay grounded - it's a marathon, not a sprint."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2021, with the headline 'Lee hailed as 'national hero''. Subscribe