KUALA LUMPUR: Despite two major injuries in the span of five months, independent shuttler Liew Daren is brimming with optimism as he approaches a defining year in his career.
Daren’s first heartbreak came at the World Championships last August, when he surged into the semifinals after ousting Kanta Tsuneyama in a pulsating 80-minute battle.
A showdown with Japan’s Kento Momota followed, and the absence of Lee Chong Wei was all but forgotten as Daren showcased some sublime performances.
But his victory over Tsuneyama cost him a right ankle injury, and he went into the contest against Momota playing through a pain barrier.
This meant he was no match for the in-form Momota, and surrendered 21-16, 21-5. The Japanese went on to clinch the title, restoring his pride after a gambling ban.
Still, Daren picked up a bronze medal and became only the third medal winner at the World Championships after Chong Wei and Wong Choon Hann.
He had a chance to redeem his pride in January, when he stormed into the Malaysia Masters semifinals after upsetting world number two Shi Yuqi.
Despite the home crowd ready to spur the in-form shuttler to victory, an unexpected injury put paid to his hopes and he had to concede a walkover to would-be-champion Son Wan-ho.
“That morning, I woke fired up for my match only to realise I could not even walk. I forced myself to do so and even tried warming up, but I just couldn’t move. Even if I’d entered the court, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” he told FMT.
“I went for an MRI scan and discovered my left heel was severely bruised. I am much better now, but it is still recovering. I have only been working from the gym lately.”
He is not rushing his recovery, but faces a race against time to make the 2020 Olympics cut when the qualifiers begin in May.
“My goal this year is to qualify for the Olympics. I have never played in one, and I want to. To do that, I must improve my ranking and be in the top 15.”
The former world number 10 is currently ranked 27th, sandwiched between Lee Zii Jia (21) and Chong Wei (31).
Chong Wei has been inactive since last July after being diagnosed with early-stage nose cancer, but has recovered and is planning a competitive comeback to defend his Malaysian Open title in April.
These three shuttlers will contend for two slots allocated to each nation if their players are ranked in the top 16.
“All three of us have a fair chance. But I have to be consistent in tournaments if I want to qualify, and not just do well in one tournament.
My performances last year have been true to form, and I don’t think I am far from the top 15.”
Daren, who is sponsored by AirAsia, is under the tutelage of Rashid Sidek. Rashid was also his coach when both were under the Badminton Association of Malaysia banner.
“I have been with Rashid for a long time, and it’s good because he knows my game. I also have to thank the Sports Affairs (Badminton Academy) for allowing me to use their facilities for free.”
Despite the injuries that befell him at the most crucial stage, Daren remains buoyant.
“It’s better to look at the positives. Injuries are part of an athlete’s game, and I would have made the same decisions as then.
“There is so much more left for me this year, and the only way is to move forward.”