When i think of Lin Dan the first thing that comes to mind is winning big titles, a whole lot of them. The pinnacle is the Olympic gold medal, and he has two of those. Next is the World Championships, and he has five of those. All told he has won 57 singles titles at the time of writing this. The big question is- how has he managed to do this?
I can answer that in one simple word- training. A common trait that shows through all the very best sports people is the dedication to improve and be better at what they do, which in the case of badminton means beating your opponents. Of course there are many different components of training for a professional badminton player such as footwork, technique, physical conditioning, shot production, mental preparation and so on. There is no getting away from the fact that if you want to be the best you have to put in the work.
The Chinese national badminton team has been at the top of badminton for many years now, with a well funded program led by top level coaches who have all been ex players at the highest level. This is the training environment that Lin Dan has been exposed to from a very young age. He has had the best possible chance to succeed, and has taken this chance to become the best men’s singles player of all time.
That is a simple explanation of why Lin Dan is so good, but we need to dig a lot deeper into every part of his game to get the real answer. I have been watching Lin Dan play for almost all his career, as a badminton fan i enjoy watching all players, but the very best are what draws the fans in. His game has changed over the years, experience has taught him many more things, but he still has the ability to win the biggest prizes on offer against different opponents.
This was never more apparent last year at the Asian Games 2014 when he beat Lee Chong Wei in the semi final, then Chen Long in the final. These two had just played each other in the World Championship final, which Lin Dan was excluded from playing as his ranking was not high enough and the BWF did not give out any wildcards. Yet he was still able to come through and win. He recently helped China win the 2015 Sudirman Cup, winning all his matches, and next up is the World Championships in Jakarta. However, the biggest one of all is next year at the Rio Olympics, this is what Lin Dan is trying to qualify for, and then win.
Ok so lets analyse his game. What are his strengths and weaknesses? When he first came onto the scene he was just all about attacking, jump smashing and speed of movement to help him get into position to hit down and follow in. I think being left handed certainly helps because his overhead forehand side is his strongest weapon, which for right handers to play against poses different questions.
You can see from the above picture that he gets up very high, has huge shoulder turn and is about to hit the shuttle well in front of him. This is where the power and angle of his smashes comes from when he has time to get right behind the shuttle. He is also very deceptive when the shuttle is a bit lower and he hits it when he is going slightly backwards. He has the ability to turn the shuttle cross court, and very few players are able to spot this shot, let alone get it back.
You can see from the photo how his forearm and wrist have come through the shot after pronation, it is this late pronation that gives the deception, along with him being side on to the shuttle at impact. He does play to this strength during rallies. If you watch many of his matches he takes the shuttle early at the front left side of the court, which is his forehand side, and plays a cross court shot to his opponents front left side. Many right handed players when taking this shot late tend to play a high cross court lift, and you can see Lin Dan shift his base position so he has his right foot in front of his left and turns his body ready for a forehand shot. He is then so early on the next shot that he is hitting it whilst his opponent is still recovering to their base position. If he hits his shot cross court then the opponents weight is still shifting in the opposite direction, and it is so difficult to change direction if your weight is going the other way.
Look at the video below for some excellent slow motion footage of his strokes. Pay attention to how high his elbow is on his forehand strokes, as well as the pronation as he hits through the stroke.
So we have found out that Lin Dan is very strong in his high forehand corner, what about the high backhand corner?. Well i think he is also very strong from this portion of the court as well. His round the head smash down the line is one of his most accurate shots, especially when he plays it with his feet on the ground. He generates a lot pace on this shot, and when you have the ability to hit a fast smash that is accurate down the line you can almost guarantee the reply will be a straight block to the net.
Of course he can play this shot cross court, and he has a very strong forearm to enable him to just change the direction of the shot at the last second. His cross court round the head shots are typically very steep so the reply usually is coming upwards, allowing him time to retrieve the shuttle if it comes back. His jump smash from round the head is also an excellent shot, but i would say not as effective as from his high forehand corner. Back in the 2008 Olympic final against Lee Chong Wei he did use this smash quite a lot and it proved to be a winning stroke many times. On that day he produced his best ever badminton, and for those of us lucky enough to witness it, it really was something special.
One of his weakest shots is his high backhand. In his early days he hardly ever played this shot as he was so fast he didn’t need to, everything was a round the head shot, but as he has got older he does play this shot more often. I would say it is a decent shot, but certainly not one that produces winners, very few players can produce outright winners on their backhand side, apart from Taufik Hidayat of course. You find that most high backhands simply get the player back into the rally. For a world class badminton player you need to be able to play a variety of shots from the one position or you will become predictable, and at elite level if your opponent doesn’t spot this, you can bet their coach will.
Over the years one area where Lin Dan has improved his stroke production and deception is from his low forehand corner. He has a very deceptive cross court shot from this area, and the reason it is so difficult to spot is because he gets really low with his legs, and then turns his body sideways to the shuttle. Endless drills have produced this form, and he is able to be deceptive even when hitting the shuttle to the rear court from down low. Another remarkable ability he has, is to be able to hit a cross court clear from deep in his forehand corner that flies into his opponents backhand corner. Very few players are able to do this. In fact in the Asian Games final of 2010 Lin Dan produced one the greatest retrieval shots of all time. Check out this rally..
To be able to hit a forehand drive from inches above the ground at the baseline at full stretch, and to actually drive the shuttle back to a good length at the other side, well i have never seen any other player pull that off. If you look at the video, he anticipates Lee Chong Wei’s push off the top of the net to his rear court, and pure physical strength gets him back to the shuttle before it drops. The stress on the hamstring and wrist are immense, but all that physical training at the National Centre allows him to be able to get that shot back with interest. The fact that he can clear the shuttle from deep in his forehand corner makes his cross and straight drop shots much more effective as opponents cannot anticipate what shot is coming.
All top level singles players need to be able to play the net. This is where games can be won and lost. If you have a great attacking game, then good net shots can set up the lift and get you hitting down. so you can play to your strengths. To play an effective net shot you need to take the shuttle early, so you need to be in position to do that. Early in his career, he had a very forward base, he was onto the short shots very quickly, and was fast enough to get back to the rearcourt if required. His tumbling net shots have got better over the years, and i would rate his net play as equal to most other top players, but it is not his stand out shot. The same goes for his net kills, he is much better on his backhand side than forehand, as most players are, as there is more flexibility in the wrist when producing a backhand kill.
In defence he is also very strong. You will regularly see him diving across the court to retrieve shots, then bounce back up and play on. He is a great defender when needed, and he has developed a top spin backhand block that just places the shuttle over the net. He can also play this cross court, and nobody can read this shot, in fact nobody else plays it at all. His recovery from all positions on court is exceptional, which is one of the strongest parts of his game that not many people realise. Another strong point is his ability to turn the shuttle in defence with a flick of his wrist, especially when returning straight smashes. it is difficult to do this, but it stops the opponent from coming into the net in a straight line and killing the shuttle. He uses this tactic quite a lot against Chen Long, who is one of the quickest players coming into net from the rear court.
It is noticeable that Lin Dan has developed his backhand lift from the net over the years. He gets to the shuttle very early and hits a top spin lift high to the right side of the rear court. He can also play this shot with a lower trajectory forcing his opponent to take the shot a little later in their forehand corner.
He often plays to the right handers forehand corner off the low service return, this is his default shot to get him in a more comfortable situation. Not many players can hit through him off a good length shot, and he reads the other players shots well from their forehand side.
Lin Dan has always had the ability to change his game and tactics depending on the situation and the opponent. He is very good at changing the pace of the game, both in speed of shot and movement. Often he will increase his speed around the court and win 5 points in a row, then back off and slow down a little. This is not an easy thing to do, and looking at many of the top 10 singles players today, i can only think of perhaps 5 that can do this. You need to have great footwork and leg strength to really speed things up and remain smooth in your movement, as well as explosive power from the split step to get to the shuttle early.
The Lin Dan we see today in 2015 has lost some of that explosive power. He has changed his playing style as age has caught up with him, probably to extend his career. Long breaks from the game after the 2012 Olympics have also helped him i reckon, as the daily grind of training takes its toll eventually. In the 2008 Olympics he played to his absolute maximum, he was in his prime and it showed. He played all out attacking badminton and his pace never slowed down all through the final match against Lee Chong Wei. For me that match ranks in my top 2 men’s singles performances of all time. As a badminton fan i enjoy watching the very best put in their best display, the kind of match where everything they do comes off, and the only other time i have seen that kind of excellence was from Zhao Jianhua in the All England final of 1990.
Fast forward to the 2013 World Championships and he played a much more controlled pace in his matches, often extending the rallies and waiting for a good opportunity to attack. This style of play involves lots of clears and pushes to the rear court, along with blocking smash shots further away from the net so the opponent will find it difficult to play a tight net shot, thus extending the rallies. It shows how good he is because he still won the title playing a different way. He is very deceptive with many of his shots and incorporates little fake pushes and holds which can be very tiring to play against as you have to hold the base position before moving.
When i watch him play in Super Series tournaments these days it seems like he is just messing about in the early rounds, like he is holding back and playing in first gear. Only when he gets to the later rounds does he play to his ability. I guess when you have won everything it can be difficult to get motivated for smaller tournaments, even when you think you are. However, when those big tournaments come around, he seems to be able to step up and deliver the goods. The videos below are of his semi and final matches in the 2014 Asian Games.
I would imagine that the goal for 2015 is the World Championships. He is currently ranked 5 in the world at the time of writing this, but to be honest it does not really matter to him, if he is on form he can beat anyone, however 2015 has not been great so far. He has suffered two early round defeats in the first two Olympic qualifying tournaments, so he needs to find some better form. He did win all his matches in the Sudirman Cup Finals to help China win the gold medal, adding yet another major title to his list.
The ability to win the big points is a trait that many champions have, and Lin Dan is no exception. If you watch him closely you will see that he tries his best not to lift the shuttle, and he increases his pace. Evidence of this can be seen in how he saved match points in the 2011 World final against Lee Chong Wei, and against the same opponent in the 2012 Olympic final when the scores were close at the closing stages of the 3rd set. It takes great mental strength to be able to control your emotions when it matters most, and Lin Dan is a master of this. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing comes down to how you can handle the pressure, and experience certainly helps if you have been in the situation before. Make the butterflies fly in formation is the name of the game!
Hitting Winning Shots
The very best players in racket sports have the ability to hit winners, it is a major factor that separates them from the others. If you can’t hit winning shots you will rely on your opponent hitting weak shots or mistakes to win the match, and if they don’t then you are in trouble. Lin Dan has always been able to hit winners to finish off rallies. Speed and accuracy of shot and movement enable him to produce quality shots time after time. His deceptive overhead technique and being left handed help him to accomplish this i would say. Most of his winners come from the forehand side, as nobody can read the direction if he is hitting downwards. That forehand smash comes down very steeply, both down the line and cross court, and he mixes up the direction so it is hard to anticipate. Give him time to get behind the shuttle by hitting higher to the back and he will punish you with his smash. Try to hit a bit lower and faster to the back and he will intercept and hit his favourite cross court smash.
Another advantage of being able to hit winners is that the rallies are shorter, this can help save energy through the course of a tournament, leaving you fresher for the final matches. I can say i have never seen Lin Dan struggle for fitness in many matches caused by fatigue. The players at the top of the world rankings are the best at hitting winners, it is no coincidence. The runners and grinders tend to expend much more energy and effort in winning matches, and this eventually takes it toll, leaving them susceptible to injuries and fatigue if they make it through the early rounds.
Probably the most important part of any elite level men’s singles player is footwork. Footwork is the foundation of badminton, especially in singles as you have to cover all the court. You can coach the basic four corner footwork into players, but they will all have their own little differences about getting around the court. One other vital part of good footwork is physical conditioning, you need strong leg muscles that can give you explosive power when needed, and to cope with the strains, twists, jumps and stretches involved with badminton.
Lin Dan has very good footwork, without this foundation he would not be able to change his pace of movement when needed. He is not the smoothest mover around a badminton court, but he is certainly one of the quickest. He is very light on his feet, and his slim build helps him achieve this. His movement to get behind the shuttle is impressive, especially going round the head at speed then moving forward. It takes great leg strength to do this, which all top players have these days.
He uses different footwork patterns when returning to his base from playing a round the head clear shot. Many players will chasse back when they have time, which Lin Dan does, but if he needs to move quicker he just takes running steps to get back in position. I have not seen any other players do this, and you have to watch his matches carefully to see him do it. He is very fast going forward to the net, particularly from the round the head shot, and often takes the shuttle early and plays a soft cross court net shot to win the point. His smash is so accurate that the return is almost always a straight block, so he can move in a straight line which is much easier to do.
He has a pretty large split step, which keeps him in balance and gives him a good base to change direction quickly. His physical ability to get around the court, especially in his younger days was unmatched. This quality is evident when he gets in trouble, to be able to get back into position when really pushed keeps him in the rally and makes the opponent wonder how they can win easy points.
Record Against His Rivals
I guess you can measure how good Lin Dan is by looking at how well he does against the other top players. Obviously the main rivalry is against Lee Chong Wei, and at the time of writing this he holds a 24-9 winning record. He leads 7-2 against Chen Long and Jan O Jorgensen. These current players are my pick as his biggest rivals for future major tournaments, and as you can see, he is comfortably ahead of all of them. Other notable head to head records are against Taufik Hidayat, which is 13-4 and Peter Gade which is 17-3, and finally Bao Chunlai at 20-5.
These records speak for themselves, if you are beating your main rivals then you are going to be winning a lot of tournaments. Psychologically he has a big advantage over all of them. The fact is that when he plays at his best he is unbeatable, and everyone knows it.
I am going to add this section because playing badminton also involves a lot of psychological tactics which are used to gain an advantage if possible during the course of a game. One of the pioneers of taking time in between points was Lin Dan. Rewind 10 years and virtually every player would observe the rules of continuous play, just getting on with the next point after each rally. However, the Chinese coaching team had noticed that Lee Chong Wei seemed to get a big agitated when he played Lin Dan, if Lin took his time in-between rallies. This would usually involve walking around the court, and wiping sweat away at the edge of the court. This tactic grew over the matches they played to include changing the shuttle more often, asking for the court to be mopped and asking for a towel down. There was certainly no love lost between these two back then, so any little advantage helped out. Chen Long also got in on the act by constantly raising his hand as Lee Chong Wei was about to serve, delaying him every time. He still does it to this day.
Another way to break up play is to dive around the court, then ask for the sweat to be mopped. Lin Dan always dives in every match he plays so there are many breaks to attend to the court. This is all well and good, but you have to be able to use the breaks to your advantage, and be focused for the next point or you may just beat yourself.
A very large advantage all of the top Chinese badminton players have is their training environment. China is the most successful nation in major badminton tournaments, and this success brings in money from the government to create even more success for China. As long as they keep winning gold medals, the badminton team will grow stronger. Of course this brings added pressure to the top players to perform and bring success, if they don’t deliver then there are team mates who will take their place. Some players like Lin Dan play better under this intense pressure, other seem to struggle, but with the national team it is not about which player wins. as long as one of them does.
Lin Dan has had excellent training partners to spar with, as China has always had top men’s singles players. The likes of Chen Hong, Bao Chunlai, Xia Xuanze, Chen Jin, Chen Long, Tian Houwei, Wang Zemgming, Du Pengyu and so on, have all trained alongside Lin Dan on a daily basis, so the quality of the practice in incredible. Add to this a long list of ex world and Olympic champions on the coaching staff and you can see why success breeds success. He has many wise heads to give him advice if needed. Add to this a hard working mentality and you can see why Lin Dan has maximized his potential through the years. Below is a clip of Lin practising against his current coach and former World Champion Xia Xuanze. The second clip is of Chinese smash practise.
Entertainment is what keeps people watching any sport. Trick shots are the icing on the cake and fans love to see them. Lin Dan has played his favourite trick quite a few times over the years, the one where he runs to the back of the court and drives the shuttle back from behind him. If you don’t know what i am talking about then see the video below.
The fact he is playing that shot against players like Son Wan Ho and Chen Long, and winning the rally, either shows he is arrogant or just likes to entertain. Whichever way you think, it is still good to see something different. Other trick shots he plays are holding the shuttle on his forehand and flicking it at the last second cross court, top spinning backhand block shots cross court, quite a few round the back shots have come off in matches, and numerous net shots that have crept over the net from inches off the floor. It can be demoralising for opponents when these tricks come off, and he is not afraid to take a chance and play them when the time is right.
Final Thoughts on Lin Dan
I personally think he is the best ever men’s singles badminton player. The way he has maintained his form for well over 10 years is testament to his work ethic and skill level. His ability to peak for the major tournaments is outstanding, and combined with his mental toughness, makes him the best. He is the kind of player that all other players want to emulate. And just one final thought, even with the huge talent pool that China has at its disposal, they have still not created a player like Lin Dan. It will be a long time before another player comes along and beats the records he has set.