Lin Dan's career is easily the most storied of the sport -- two Olympic gold medals, five World titles and 666 career wins, spanning two decades. To give an idea of the 36-year-old's longevity, Lin has competed against five different generations of Indian badminton players. As a 17-year-old rookie against Pullela Gopichand 2001. At his prime against Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhat in the mid-2000s. Parupalli Kashyap at the turn of the decade. In the autumn of his career against the likes of Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Sai Praneeth in the mid-late 2010s. And he was still too much of a hurdle for young Lakshya Sen, considered the most promising young Indian talent, when they faced off at the New Zealand Open in 2018.
So what is it that made him such a fearsome opponent, for so long? These different generations of Indian stars try to decode the man the badminton world nicknamed 'Super Dan'.
Physicality and fitness
It was his physicality that stood out first for Gopichand, the first Indian to encounter Lin at a senior competition. He would go on to become one of only two Indians to have a winning record against Lin (2-1), but he lost his first encounter in the first round of the 2001 Singapore Open. Lin was still very early in his career, but his relentless approach left an impression. "Lin Dan and later Lee Chong Wei brought a new physicality to the sport. They did it to a degree that didn't exist prior to him," recalls Gopichand.
Former national champion Arvind Bhat reckons it was that fitness which created the massive gulf between Lin and everyone else at the peak of his career. "It was otherworldly. It seems he had figured everyone out. It was as if he thought, 'I just need to keep the rallies going and everyone will tire out.' He just killed you with rallies. He wouldn't even have to think about trying something different," says Bhat.
Lin retained much of that physicality even late in his career. Prannoy recounts an incident from the first time he met Lin. When he saw Lin training in a hotel gym on the morning of their first match at the 2015 Malaysia Open, his first instinct was to think the match was off. "On the day of the match, you don't really push yourself so that you are fresh for your match. Lin Dan was really going hard in the gym. He was groaning and yelling. With that kind of effort there was no way he would be able to play his match. He was working with more intensity on the day of a match than I did in a regular training session. It didn't make sense to me. Then in the evening, we played our first match and he beat me in straight games. And I wondered what is this guy made of!"
He recollects another anecdote. "I'd always wanted to hold Lin Dan's racket because I'd heard how it was custom-made for him. I got a chance to do so at the 2015 French Open. It's really heavy. Most players prefer a lighter racket but Lin Dan prefers a heavy one. That way he has a lot more punch in his strokes than most players."
Lin did not start out as a punishing rally-winning machine though. At their first encounter. Gopichand recalls Lin as an out-and-out attacker. "At that time he was incredibly aggressive. He was lightning quick. Just devoted to attacking all the time." Although Gopichand lost their first encounter, he says he wasn't particularly worried about Lin's game. "He had a very typically Chinese playing style and I was very comfortable with that. My game was built around touch and deception, which is a perfect counter for that attacking style," says Gopichand who subsequently beat Lin in their next two matches.
Lin played a fast-paced game throughout his early career. "He was an out-and-out attacking player. He was nothing like the guy he became later. If you lifted ten shuttles, nine of them would be hit with a jump smash down at you," says Anup Sridhar, who played him five times between 2007 and 2009.
"There was no doubt that he was very good but there was a time when he was losing quite often to Taufik Hidayat and Peter Gade. Even when I played him in 2003, I lost, but I didn't come away with the impression that he was unbeatable," says Bhat.
But while Lin could have been satisfied being a one-trick pony, he reworked his game. He retained his speed but added a relentless rallying pace to his game. Gopichand explains how that made the difference. "There were obviously very stylish and glamorous aspects of his game, like his cross-court jump smash," he says. "But you can maybe win once with a glamorous stroke. To win for 20 years in men's singles, you need to do something more. The way he jumps to smash is one thing but the ability to change your game to what is required is my biggest takeaway from his game."
"What makes him great is that he came with a certain style and he adapted and made his weak point his strongest point. When he lost, he went back and worked. Not many of the strokes and footwork which are there today were there when he was 20. The ability to change and work on his game and physicality needs a lot of work and discipline and understanding. It needs a mindset that is willing to try out different things. Lin Dan had it. That's what made him special."
Lin's contemporaries believe he had all the ingredients that made a near-perfect badminton player. But he wasn't the only tremendously gifted player of his era. Take Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei who had 732 career victories or even Indonesia's Taufik Hidayat who also won a World Championship and Olympic gold. Something set Lin apart, though. "If you consider them purely from a skills perspective, then I still believe that Lee Chong Wei was technically the better player. But when you actually put them on the court, it was Lin Dan who had the better record [28-12]," says Gopichand.
What set Lin apart was an unparalleled self-belief. "The biggest difference between Lin Dan and the others was his ability to play perfect, error-free, attacking badminton precisely at the crucial moments," says Bhat.
For the better part of a decade, Lin Dan played with an aura of inevitable triumph. "Most players who got on to the court with him were intimidated. That was a real problem. You were afraid of attacking him so you got into the trap of rallying with him -- where he was a real monster. He was as strong as they get. He was mentally like a bull. He was supremely confident in his ability. There was a genuine fear because you knew that he'd let you get to 18-all but he'd almost certainly pick up a gear and win from there. It must have been psychologically difficult for many players," says Gopichand.
Playing against Lin meant players knew there was nearly no margin for error. "If you didn't play the very best game you were capable of, you didn't have a chance of winning," says Sridhar who never beat Lin in five encounters.
"There is nothing missing for Lin Dan. He's won everything and beaten the best player of his time doing so" Arvind Bhat
During the match, while his opponents sweated and looked to their coach for guidance, Lin used his corner for a different purpose. "From what I experienced, he didn't want advice [from his coaches] so much as to tell them what his strategy for the rest of the match was going to be," recalls Prannoy.
For Bhat, Lin's mindset set him apart from anyone else. "The one thing that puts Lin Dan above Lee Chong Wei are their three big finals -- the 2011 WC, the 2012 Olympics and the 2013 WC. They were both at the peak of their careers at that stage. In all three matches Lee won a set and he led in the final set of each match [and he also had two match points in 2011]. So why was it always just the one player who won each time?" he asks.
Bhat argues that those three wins cement Lin Dan's claim to greatness. "He's undoubtedly the greatest player in men's single's history. He is alone at the top. In tennis, you could always have that argument, that maybe Roger Federer did not have a winning record against some player or that he did not win the biggest titles. There is nothing missing for Lin Dan. He has won everything and beaten the best player of his time doing so," he says.
For all of Lin's achievements, there is a belief that continuing for longer than he should have tarnished his legacy. Over the past three seasons, Lin's win-loss record slumped to 47-41 against a career record of 619-92 at the end of 2017. His most recent career ranking was 19.
"I thought he should have retired two years ago. Maybe he thought he could play one more Olympics. But because he wasn't as strong physically as before, it gave opponents a better chance to catch up to him," says Bhat.
But despite his diminishing skills, Lin remained capable of showing sparks of his old ability, such as the win at the 2019 Malaysia Open where he beat 2016 Olympic champion Chen Long in the final. According to Prannoy, Lin retained the ability to beat anyone on his day. "There was this match at the 2018 Hong Kong Open where he was playing [world No. 1] Kento Momota. The air-conditioning unit was right behind one side of the court so it was impossible to control the shuttle from that side. Everything you hit went long. Every player on that side of the court struggled. But when Lin Dan was playing on that side, he didn't hit a single shuttle long. He was able to control the shuttle in the worst conditions."
Lin could inspire even towards the end of his career. "To play as long as he did is unbelievable. You could see how much he loved the sport. That is something that motivated a lot of younger players. It's really inspiring to see that kind of passion for the sport," says Prannoy.
This love for the sport made him special. Opponents noticed it right from the start of his career. "You could always sense he had that love for the sport. He wasn't a talkative guy. You'd never see him in the restaurants or the malls that most players would go to. He just always liked staying in the same room. He wasn't the most talkative player or anything," says Bhat. "But the one place where he always would stand out was on the court."