Lin Dan met Lee Chong Wei in two Olympic finals, winning on both occasions. The Chinese legend’s big-match temperament was a differentiator, says Jwala Gutta.
The two badminton superstars clashed 40 times during their career, including in 15 semi-finals and 22 finals, and two Olympic gold medal matches (2008 and 2012), with the Chinese legend Lin Dan winning on 28 occasions.
Though Lee Chong Wei eventually got the better of Lin Dan at the Rio 2016 Olympics semi-final, the Chinese star won two Olympic and World Championship finals against his Malaysian counterpart prior to that.
It was this big-match temperament, according to Jwala Gutta, that set Lin Dan apart.
“It was always in the mind,” she told the Times of India in an interview.
“Remember Lee Chong Wei has beaten Lin Dan many times, but in the big ones - the World Championships and the Olympic finals - there was a sea change in Lin Dan mentally.
“Lee Chong was smarter than other players, but he was very intimidated by Lin Dan,” Jwala Gutta reckoned. “Half the stamina is drained when you get intimidated and when you get desperate.”
After losing to Lin Dan in straight sets 21-12, 21-8 at the 2008 Beijing Games final, Lee Chong Wei had come extremely close at the 2012 London Games final, before he went down 21-15, 21-10, 21-19.
The two World Championship summit clashes between them – in 2011 and 2013 - were close as well with both matches going into the decider. And Jwala Gutta attributes Lin Dan’s phenomenal success more to his intelligence than physical prowess.
“I felt Lin Dan was a smarter player. He knew how to save his energy and how to make the opponent run,” Gutta observed.
“He used to literally walk on the court! You cannot walk on the court unless you know which area of the court the opponent is going to return to.
“That may have looked so arrogant, but he's simply being clever. There are many champions but only a few legends,” she added.
Having a mother of Chinese descent, Jwala Gutta has always closely observed the badminton powerhouse, whose discipline played a significant role in their success.
But the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist believes Lin Dan broke away from that mould to create his own identity.
“I remember being struck then by the Chinese team,” Jwala Gutta recalled.
“They were all similar in their kind of play, training, kind of footwork, length, attitude off the court, everything.
“But Lin Dan was different from the beginning. He was aggressive, stylish, you know, that, 'I know I'm the best' vibe,” she pointed out.
Lin Dan, announced his retirement earlier this month after a 20-year-old career, where he won 666 singles matches and a sackful of medals.