The last time I wrote an open letter as a sportswriter to a national player, it was more than 30 years ago, to the enigmatic Misbun Sidek. Misbun was a natural, blessed with amazing skills, among which were his famous deadly chop, his deceptive wrist plays and his cross-court smashes.
On his day he could beat anyone – Indonesia’s Luis Pongoh, Dane Morten Frost, India’s Prakash Padukone, even China’s Yang Yang and Zhao Jianhua. But unlike all of them, Misbun did not win any title or championship of significant value. Not the World Cup, nor the All-England, and certainly not the Thomas Cup.
That was because Misbun’s greatest nemesis was himself. He couldn’t handle pressure, his stamina was wanting, and, for him, it was either his way or the highway. In 1982, he had an issue with the coaching methods of then national chief coach, Tan Yee Khan, a former All-England doubles champion and member of the victorious 1967 Thomas Cup squad.
And what did Misbun do? He walked out of training camp and trained himself, which got him nowhere. But Misbun had won all the popularity contests, was a darling of the fans, and the administrators around him didn’t have the courage to discipline him. No one, except for Yee Khan, told Misbun that he was his own biggest opponent.
Eventually, Yee Khan quit for want of support, while Misbun remained a star, entertaining fans with his changing hairstyles – from the Mohican to the blond look.
Misbun was a star, but, sadly, never a champion. He had the potential to be a world champion, but a feeble mind and heart stood in his way.
I had written once that between the exceptional skills of Misbun, and the immense fighting spirit of Foo Kok Keong, we had a world champion. Unfortunately, these qualities were in two different bodies.
Sound familiar, Zii Jia, for that’s where you are now.
You left the Badminton Association of Malaysia last year, thinking you would attain loftier heights as an independent player, but you still haven’t.
Then in November last year, months after you had won the Asian title, you parted company with your Indonesian coach Indra Wijaya, stating that you wanted to go solo, whatever that meant. That still didn’t get you anywhere worth getting to.
Then there was a string of first and second round exits, and your horde of fans blamed everything and everyone, except you, for your failures. So, I wasn’t one bit surprised, when you excused yourself from the Road To Gold project.
It was quite evident that you couldn’t handle the pressure of carrying the nation’s hopes of a first Olympic gold alone on your fragile shoulders. You knew you were far from ready to take on that challenge, and didn’t want to be the fall guy.
But let me tell you this, Lee Zii Jia, the nation, like me, has hope in you to wake up one day, believe in yourself, stop blaming others, take stock of the situation objectively, stop behaving like a diva, and seriously start working towards that elusive gold in Paris 2024.
Your road to gold begins with you, inarguably the toughest part of your journey that needs to be overcome first – just as the trek up to the peak of Mount Everest doesn’t start with the trek to either the South Base Camp in Nepal, or the North Base Camp in China.
Before climbers can overcome the elements of nature and the intimidating hazards that have taken more than 300 lives, they need to first search deep in their minds and hearts to see if they are mentally charged, and hungry enough to conquer Everest.
There is a cross to bear and an Everest to mount in all our lives. Malaysian sport’s Everest still remains the Olympic gold – since our debut in Melbourne in 1956, and since badminton made its debut in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Qualifying for Paris 2024 ends on April 28 next year, and you don’t need to finish among the top 10 because a country can have two representatives, provided both players finish in the top 16.
I see you qualifying for Paris, and Ng Tze Yong, too. I am neither a prophet nor crystal ball gazer, but given your current state of mind and the team you are in, common sense would dictate that you will fall at the tournament’s “base camp”, as you have in the world tour.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, for given your skills, you can ascend to the peak. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do this on your own. You need a task master for a coach, someone who is not afraid to be brutally honest with you about your flaws.
You need a coach who can come up with a sound plan, and ensure that you follow it religiously, with none of that diva-like posturing. And the name that comes immediately to mind, is South Korean, Park Joo Bong.
Yes, I know he is in Japan, and has been there for 18 years, transforming them into a formidable force in world badminton. With him, your only option will be to listen, follow, and deliver. And this is what you need now, if you don’t want to be left too far behind.
Park is still contracted to Japan until next year. But like any other business deal there might be an escape clause, and he may be tempted to leave Japan if the offer and challenge are good enough. So make him an offer, and base yourself in Indonesia, which is both affordable and presents an ideal competitive ground for you.
Viktor Axelsen set up his base in Dubai, and has been performing well, better than you, I might add. But then, Axelsen is more mentally mature and stable, and infernally driven by a hunger for success.
Think about it Zii Jia, we all want you to pick yourself up and play to your true potential. Misbun couldn’t, and that was on him.
If nothing else, just remember that your sponsors will be less forgiving of any further decline in your status. Badminton is a money-making industry, so be wise.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.