Dedicated to Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei, who gave us one of the most heart-stopping Olympic finals ever. Here's to the Batman and Joker of badminton.
March 4, 2053
Chong Wei stepped into the hospital room, somewhat hesitant.
He made his way towards the solitary bed, taking care not to put too much weight on his perpetually aching right foot. Each step taking him closer to a man he had not seen for over 20 years.
And there he was. A feeble man on the bed stuck with pitiful tubes and apparatuses all over. His body had long failed him, but in his eyes Chong Wei still recognised the defiant pride of a man they once called Super Dan.
With much effort, Lin Dan turned his face to Chong Wei and smiled.
My greatest adversary, Chong Wei thought as he smiled back and nodded. This man, who gave him countless sleepless nights, heartbreaks and tears. In the course of their careers they faced off close to 60 times, though many of the later matches were for charity events.
The Thomas Cups. The World Championships. The Super Series. The Opens.
To be more precise, the 2016 Rio Olympics. The defining moment when Chong Wei etched his place in sporting folklore for eternity.
Then 33 years of age, he staged a spectacular comeback into the Olympics and battled all the way into a historic third consecutive Olympics badminton final against - you guessed it, Lin Dan. At that time though, it wasn't a foregone conclusion as Lin himself was already 32 years old and past his prime. But both competitors showed tremendous resilience to skip past the field of younger players, silencing critics who predicted embarrassing early-round exits for the two.
The highly-anticipated final, touted by the media as 'Eight Years In The Making', would be either one of two things. Lin could take another unconquerable step into greatness, or Chong Wei could seize his one last chance at redemption. The stakes were just too high – especially for Chong Wei, for whom a third straight final defeat could prove to be too crushing. The Chinese press especially had a field day, speculating that Chong Wei might even fall into depression should he lose again.
It was the game of Chong Wei's life. He played like a man possessed; chasing after shuttles beyond reach, returning strikes that were too powerful, outmaneuvering the master at every turn. If it was even possible, the commentators noted, both men were playing at a level higher than four years ago.
An all-too-familiar story ensued: Chong Wei won the first set, Lin snatched the second, and both went neck-to-neck in the rubber. Just like in London, leads were traded back and forth and neither man could establish an advantage. At 15-15, the stadium hushed as Lin started his serve.
Mistake. It went short. The Malaysian supporters went wild, begging Chong Wei to not let history repeat.
Much wiser this time, Chong Wei remained calm and took his time to read and counter Lin's moves. 17, 18, 19, 20! Game point. If Lin could somehow come back from this, Chong Wei would never, ever forgive himself.
He steadied himself and served. After a brief flurry of exchanges, an opportunity presented itself at the net for Chong Wei. The deftest of flicks was enough to lift it over into Lin's half, just slightly past Dan's outstretched arm.
And that was it. Chong Wei, at third time trying, had finally delivered Malaysia's first Olympics gold medal.
In a cheeky move, he peeled off his shirt and posed with a less impressive body.
Soon after that legendary game, both announced their retirements. As years went by and newer stars rose, they gradually stopped meeting. That was, till Chong Wei received news that Lin was severely ill.
Now here he lay, old and dying. It was very strange and scary all at once.
Lin tugged at Chong Wei, motioning for him to come closer.
"My friend." Chong Wei tried not to let his voice break.
Lin pulled Chong Wei even closer, trying to speak into his ear.
"Y...you beat me. At the Olympics." came the hoarse whisper.
"It was a good game, my friend."
Lin nodded, his breathing growing more laboured by the second.
"You beat me...because I let you."
"I didn't...want you...to be sad."
And Lin Dan breathed his last. Still smiling. Still defiant. Still brutally truthful.