THE senior Lee has left the scene. And the junior fellow has taken centrestage.A friend said this, almost in jest, after 22-year-old Lee Zii Jia pulled off a spectacular show to dethrone defending champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark 30-29,20-22,21-9 in the All-England men’s singles final at the Arena Birmingham on Sunday to end a four-year title wait for Malaysia.
The last time a Malaysian won the All-England was in 2017 when the more famous Lee – Chong Wei – did for his fourth title.
But what this friend of mine failed to realise is that Zii Jia has been in the badminton scene for some time now.In fact, Zii Jia joined the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) academy at the age of 13 and made his presence felt as a back-up player since 2017.
When Chong Wei retired from the sport in June 2019 after recovering from nose cancer, Zii Jia and a few others, including Cheam June Wei and Leong Jun Hao were earmarked as future successors but everybody knew that it would take time.
Zii Jia has certainly shown the quickest progress compared to the rest as Malaysia seek a player capable of matching the three-time Olympics silver medallist or better yet, to take over the mantle.
Zii Jia did show signs and potential as the likely successor when he won the Taiwan Open in 2018 and reached the semi-finals of the 2020 All-England, losing to Axelsen.
But winning his first major title in Birmingham in such a confident and commanding style has indeed cemented his status as the national No. 1 and raised hopes for Malaysians.
It has been a while since the whole nation came together in the way they did on Sunday night to witness Zii Jia’s victory.
There were no fans inside the stadium to celebrate his victory but millions were glued to their TV sets, impressed with his fighting display, smashing form and determination to prove a point.
Even those who had criticised Zii Jia after his poor performances in Thailand just two months ago hailed him as a hero and non-badminton fans joined in the celebration.
At a time when Covid-19 had given so much pain, Zii Jia’s win brought joy to one and all.
His win against two-time world champion Kento Momota of Japan for the first time in seven attempts and former world champion Axelsen en route to being only the sixth Malaysian All-England champion in the men’s singles, have brought Malaysians together.
It’s something only sports can do – bring together all Malaysians of different, race, religion, colour and even political affiliations.
The question now is – can Zii Jia handle the limelight and expectations of him?
He will celebrate his 23rd birthday on March 29 and there is a long way ahead of him.
Some players allow stardom to get to them, some struggle to find the same form, while others take their time to grow from strength to strength.
Naturally, everyone will be hoping for him to keep the momentum going until the Tokyo Olympic Games in July and beyond.
All this could be an added pressure on a young shoulder, so it’s important Zii Jia gets the right support and guidance.
He has good coaches in Hendrawan, Datuk Tey Seu Bock and coaching director Wong Choong Hann to minimise distractions.
Chong Wei was disciplined, focused and had the right support and he went on to dominate for more than a decade.
Despite all his successes, he did not let pride become his downfall but the former world No. 1 Chong Wei stayed modest and worked hard.
Even from his junior days, Zii Jia is respectful, humble and hopefully, he will remain the same – grounded – after this.
The baton has been passed – from one Lee to another – it’s up to Zii Jia to carry on the legacy.