This is a tale of the Fantastic Four.
No, not the imaginary quartet of Marvel Comics. These four were real – and they could stretch their bodies beyond human limits, stood like solid rock walls in defence, were brilliant in their attacks and set fans' imaginations on fire wherever they went.
I am talking about four badminton superheroes. There was Lin Dan with his artistry, menacing attacking shots and unbelievable retrieves, Taufik Hidayat and his powerful backhand smash, Peter Gade-Christensen’s tight netshot, and Lee Chong Wei’s overhead smashes and trickery.
Add to this the blistering pace, solid defence and superb fighting spirit all four had.
They used their racquets like magic wands and for the fans, it has been two decades of pure class.
The era of the four greats ended with the retirement of five-time world champion and two-time Olympics winner Lin Dan on the Fourth of July. There were no fireworks, just lots of memories of an amazing 20-year career.
His closest rival Chong Wei had hung up his racquet a year earlier, due to nose cancer.
Taufik and Peter had exited the stage in 2012 – with the 2004 Athens Olympics champion quitting just a few months before the lanky Dane.
The world has seen their on-court antics and displays but they were great individuals, too. Having covered all four, I know.
Of the four, Lin Dan was the toughest for the foreign media.
Language was a barrier and snobbish head coach Li Yongbo had a tight rein over his players.
Lin Dan himself used to snub nosy reporters. He was cocky on court, arrogant in his brilliance; and he was much the same off it, too.
But over the years, he softened and was more appreciative of his fans and could even crack jokes at press conferences.
Peter, on the other hand, was the friendliest.
Win or defeat, and even after an energy-sapping match, he would have a big smile for the media and lots of enthusiasm.
Once, he landed in Kuala Lumpur with a migraine and was taken straight to hospital.
He came to the court shaken but went all the way to win the title. He was not called Mr Nice Guy for nothing and was a fitting ambassador for badminton.
Taufik was a different breed of player altogether – talented but temperamental. His Eric Cantona kick against an unruly fan in 2001 is unforgettable.
He lunged towards a fan for instigating him – thus earning the name as the bad boy of badminton.
There were other issues too but the skilful baby-faced assassin as he was called, was a courageous spokesperson for the badminton family.
He raised countless issues with the Badminton World Federation (BWF) whenever he felt that the players’ rights were violated.
The sport really needs more Taufiks, who are not only great on court but also dare to make a stand.
For one so fiery, he was a truly a gentle guy deep inside.
Now, the best for the last – Chong Wei. I can write a book on his ups and downs.
He turned from this mischievous little junior, who always got into trouble with his coaches, to a global star and a national icon.
It’s easy to spot when he is in a jovial mood and you know it too when something is troubling him – personal issues, injuries, finances or management.
Despite his many challenges, Chong Wei never brought it to the court.
It was like badminton was his escape from his worldly worries.
On court, his only focus was on winning and living up to the nation’s hopes and expectations.
He has always appreciated those who supported him – coaches, teammates, fans and even strangers in need.
We will miss these four.
The world of badminton not only needs talented and super skilful players but those with characters and charisma, too.
It’s something we are lacking now.
We have Kento Momota of Japan; Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen, Taiwan’s Chou Tien-chen; Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie, China’s Shi Yuqi and Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia to mention a few.
But there’s a long way to go before this bunch can create the same excitement and buzz that Four Kings did.
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