KUALA LUMPUR: Lee Zii Jia sure has some big shoes to fill when Malaysia head to the Thomas Cup Finals in Aarhus, Denmark from Oct 3-11.
For the first time in 14 years, Malaysia will be without the talismanic Lee Chong Wei at first singles – and it will be up to Zii Jia to deliver the first point.
With Chong Wei leading the team since the 2006 edition in Japan, Malaysia had been assured of a winning start in almost every match.
Chong Wei boasts an impressive record at first singles, contributing 24 points out of a possible 27 until the last Finals in Bangkok when he guided the team to the last eight. Only China’s Lin Dan and Denmark’s Peter Gade have got the better of him.
It’s worth noting that the three-time Olympics silver medallist was also unbeaten in all his last 15 starts dating back to 2014, where Malaysia were pipped to the title by Japan in New Delhi, India.
That’s how massive the responsibility that Zii Jia has to shoulder – should the Finals go on as scheduled.
Chong Wei made an honest assessment when asked to comment on Zii Jia succeeding him at first singles.
“I’m not trying to put more pressure on him, but I’m sure he knows it (the daunting task) as well, ” said Chong Wei after launching the Aisportz virtual fitness challenge at the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre here yesterday.
“He has a very heavy responsibility. But this is the pressure he will have to handle because he’s the top men’s singles shuttler in the country.
“Being the first to go into action, he’s the leader of the team and his task is to get the team off to a winning start.
“The first point is extremely important to lift the the team’s morale and ease the pressure on your teammates.”
Chong Wei believes good team support, led by coaches Wong Choong Hann and Hendrawan, would be crucial in helping Zii Jia cope with the enormous pressure.
He added that the men’s singles role would pose a different challenge altogether for Zii Jia although he did achieve several good results of late, including winning the SEA Games gold last December and reaching the semi-finals of the Malaysian Masters in January and the All-England in March.
“The pressure of playing in an individual meet and team competitions is totally different, ” explained Chong Wei.
“In team events, you are not just playing for yourself. The whole team will be counting on you.
“When I was playing first singles, I was always extra focused because I knew I could not let the team down.
“But I have faith in Zii Jia. I have been in touch with Hendrawan and Choong Hann, they said Zii Jia’s performance has been very encouraging. Hopefully, he will be able to translate that into a good performance and help Malaysia progress in Aarhus.
“Both Choong Hann and Hendrawan have plenty of Thomas Cup experience in them, I’m sure they will be able to help him. There’s also the team psychologist. Zii Jia will need all the assistance to help him manage the pressure.”
Chong Wei made his debut in the 2004 Finals in Jakarta at third singles, winning both his group stage matches but played no part in Malaysia’s 1-3 quarter-final defeat by the host.
Two years later, Chong Wei assumed the first singles role from Choong Hann and led the team to the semi-finals before they lost 2-3 to Denmark.
Chong Wei was beaten by Gade for the first of his only three defeats in his Thomas Cup Finals career.
His other loss was to Lin Dan in Malaysia’s tame 0-3 semi-final defeat in Kuala Lumpur 2010.
In Wuhan 2012, Chong Wei was forced to retire after just four minutes of play into the match against Gade due to an ankle injury. Malaysia lost 2-3 to Denmark but still progressed to the last eight as group runners-up.
In Chong Wei’s absence, Malaysia went down 0-3 to China.
LEE CHONG WEI’S THOMAS CUP FINALS RECORD
Jakarta 2004 (quarter-finals): Two wins in two matches
Tokyo 2006 (semi-finals): Two wins in three matches
Jakarta 2008 (semi-finals): Four wins in four matches
Kuala Lumpur 2010 (semi-finals): Three wins in four matches
Wuhan 2012 (quarter-finals): One win in two matches
New Delhi 2014 (runners-up): Six wins in six matches
Kunshan 2016 (semi-finals): Five wins in five matches
Bangkok 2018 (quarter-finals): Three wins in three matches
Total: 26 wins in 29 matches (24 in 27 as first singles)
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