KUALA LUMPUR • Lee Zii Jia's charge up the badminton rankings has sparked hopes that Malaysia has found a successor to the legendary Lee Chong Wei - and someone who can finally win the country a first Olympic gold.
The 22-year-old jumped to world No. 10 after establishing himself in the sport's elite with some big-name scalps at the start of this year before play was suspended because of the coronavirus crisis.
He defeated China's Olympic champion Chen Long to reach the semi-finals of the prestigious All England Open in March, and beat China's ninth-ranked Shi Yuqi at the Malaysia Masters in January.
But he remains relaxed about being touted as the heir to fellow Malaysian Chong Wei, a three-time Olympic silver medallist and one of the greatest players of his generation until his retirement last year.
"From the beginning, everybody said I am the next Lee Chong Wei, that I am going to replace him," he said. "It made me (feel) pressure but now, slowly, I have become more mature. I am starting to accept those pressures, and turn them into motivation."
The major disappointment in former world No. 1 Chong Wei's glittering career was that he failed to win badminton's biggest prizes, being beaten to gold by his nemesis Lin Dan of China in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals, and the world championships in 2011 and 2013.
But Zii Jia, despite the weight of expectation, is playing down his chances of winning gold at the Tokyo Games next year, which would be his first Olympics.
"I will just go and try my best to gain some experience," he said. "For me no pressure, just go and fight, and try my best."
He has received advice from the elder Lee, 37, and is using the same two coaches his compatriot did before the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Chong Wei, who retired last year after failing to regain form following successful cancer treatment, made it to the singles final in Rio only to be defeated by Chen, who a year earlier had also relegated him to silver at the world championships.
"Their combination, I think, is very good," said Zii Jia of the backroom team of head coach Hendrawan and assistant Tey Seu Bock.
"They have worked with Lee Chong Wei for many years, maybe they will share some experiences with me about how he trained."
He has an attacking style but in recent matches has shown more patience and consistency, such as during his 21-12, 21-18 victory over Chen in his first appearance at the All England Open.
Like many athletes, he was not able to train for weeks due to the coronavirus lockdown. But he has stayed fit by having training sessions via video-conferencing and resumed on-court training last week as Malaysia's restrictions eased.
He is concerned about the prospect of a frantic end to the year with a packed tournament calendar once competitions resume.
"There will be many tournaments back-to-back. I have not been back on court maybe three months," he said. "Maybe it takes me another three months to get back to normal."