It wasn’t just the second-round loss to young Chinese Li Shi Feng, after being 11-8 and 15-13 up in the decider at Delhi’s India Open last month. Malaysian big hope Lee Zii Jia was feeling the pressure to perform as an independent professional shuttler. It’s not a new phenomenon – setting off on your own and charting your own training course – though it’s rare in badminton.
But with Viktor Axelsen moving to Dubai and setting up a training base, rather successfully cutting the umbilical cord from the national training centre, there is a start of that imminent question — can badminton go the tennis way of individualised, pro training? Or is government/federation funding not yet indispensable?
Moving out worked for Axelsen just as well as being at the national centre did: he won his Olympics gold training under the system and continues to hoard Tour titles claiming them with an unsatiated, undefeated appetite, well after leaving that umbrella of support. So he might just be an outlier, not strictly a precedent for others less sorted – for want of a better word – in their plans, to follow.
Lee Zii Jia would speak candidly on his decision to branch out, with the Malaysian system not particularly happy initially with the idea, and expressing their ire by keeping him out. Matters cooled down later – he even led the contingent at the Asian Mixed Team event this last week – but the World No 4 was still trying to strike a free bird’s song, as far as his form went.
His ranking went up from No 7 same time last year, mid-February, to No 2, before it dropped to No 4, with results teetering away with early exits. After winning the Asian Championships last spring, he followed up with an unbeaten Thomas Cup and picked the Thailand Open crown thereafter. He made the finals at Denmark last October. But the talented Malaysian has 8 exits in the first or second round (17/32 & 9/16 finishes) out of the last 10 tournaments played.
He confessed in Delhi it could take him 2 years to patch things back to that promising potential in terms of results, while doing it all on his own.
“It will be tough after turning professional, I expect it can take 2 years to get things back, but I’m ready for the challenge. Many things need to combine to succeed like Viktor. Though the pressure of expectations from fans and even home, continues nonstop. They expect high performance every time, but there are many new things to learn when you go pro,” he would say.
Going independent means sorting out training facility, physios, trainers, analysts, and everything on your own. And the expenses. Lee Zii Jia would even travel to Taiwan to get the physio-trainer fixed, when earlier the national camp would have tended to these bothers. But even after the dust settled in Malaysia about losing their biggest name – an heir to Lee Chong Wei in fact – LZJ was still trying to put his whole support team in place. The breathless calendar hardly helped.
Anders Antonsen, a former No 2, would follow compatriot Viktor Axelsen out of the national training centre, but not be able to break his downward spiral in rankings, even falling out of Top Ten. “Withdrawing from the association’s elite program meant he could no longer have a Badminton Denmark national coach as head coach, receive financial support or make use of Team Denmark’s experts in everyday life,” an update on Badminton Denmark’s website, stated.
It wasn’t an acrimonious parting at all, and Antonsen and Axelsen would still train at the national centre for 13-15 weeks a year, as per the federation. Antonsen had taken a bolder call than Axelsen given the once No 2, was still to achieve the top titles. “I have just reached a place in my life where I have a desire and hunger to try myself in a new way. I will have a base in Dubai, but also want to travel and train in different countries and explore the many different approaches to badminton and training culture,” Ekstra bladet, Denmark, reported Antonsen as saying.
Axelsen has a young family with two daughters, still toddlers. And had reportedly justified his choice as ‘better training conditions and access to experts, as well as fewer problems from his allergy and hay fever in a milder climate’. Not in fine print, he also was clear that while Dubai meant financial benefits, it also increased costs as he had to find training opponents himself.
Just like tennis, though maybe more owing to how things are done traditionally, badminton is a sparring-heavy sport, one crucial reason why ‘national centres’ have always made sense. Quality of play tends to improve while training alongside equally elite shuttlers, and that correlation in results, is hard to ignore. Though he’s spoken of finding sparring as a big challenge, and even sent out invites to upcoming shuttlers to train with him in Dubai, Axelsen continues to succeed going his own way. His clarity of purpose though, might not necessarily replicate for others, and both Antonsen and Lee Zii Jia acknowledge the challenges.
Badminton remains an expensive sport to pursue on your own. At any rate, going pro demands a financial commitment to spend from your own pocket on a dedicated coach, a physio team of trainers and doctors, analysts, the works. While tennis and squash pros routinely take on these burdens, and are expected to spend on their travel and tournament entries, badminton remains cossetted by institutional collectives, given its pre-eminence as a ‘team sport’ and how medals for the nation – and not 4 Grand Slam trophies – determine success. Top players prefer the benefits that come from being a part of this system rather than branching out on their own.
Still, it’s become fairly common in hitherto tight systems like Japan and Indonesia for players to opt out and venture off independently, eg Nozomi Okuhara. The big Malaysian sulk was mostly down to the sheer quality of Lee Zii Jia as a player and their contention that they had ‘made’ this player in his formative years. But it’s not uncommon for federations too to cut out players ruthlessly for reasons of fitness or form, forcing them to set off by themselves without the tethers.
There remains though much to be gained from the ‘national training’ model. For one, it keeps lonely struggles at bay, something that tennis hugely grapples with, amongst not just the journeymen but even top players. A sense of ‘team’ is a good environment to train in, and Indonesian doubles proves that success multiplies when the whole bunch train together, not to mention exchange of ideas during sparring and a healthy intra-nation competition.
But selection practices can often lead to flare-ups and ego battles in ‘team national centres’ across Europe and Asia, with coaches-player disagreements fairly common. Players craving individualised attention is also not rare, and a cause of friction, pushing badminton more tennis-wards. Prize earnings through tournament wins though, are not comparable to tennis, and it might well be a few years until tennis’ pro structure with all the trimmings gets transplanted into badminton.
Some players like Chou Tien Chen find a court-side coach superfluous, a trainer suffices. Some need different coaches in training and when yelling out instructions from behind. Yet others – especially the new bunch of men’s singles – are open to short stints under different coaches to get an all-round perspective. Most top singles talents build their own teams for an ‘island of excellence’ even within the system.
National centres tend to prove more useful for upcoming talents, as has been the trend for some years now. Established shuttlers tend to crave independence. Only a few have the courage to completely set off on their own though. Unlike tennis, badminton stays risk-averse.