Among the galaxy of top doubles players in Malaysia, Lee Wan Wah occupies a prominent place.
Lee and Choong Tan Fook established one of the longest men’s doubles partnerships in badminton, going strong for nearly a decade and a half. Starting from the mid-1990s, the Malaysians were a prominent pair well all through the 2000s.
Following in the footsteps of their seniors, Cheah Soon Kit and Yap Kim Hock, Lee and Choong were frequent podium finishers, eventually finishing with two World Championships bronze medals, a Commonwealth Games gold, two Asian Championships titles, and a clutch of other major Grand Prix wins. Lee was also a vital part of the strong Malaysian squads that made two Thomas Cup finals (1998 and 2002).
Interestingly, their first major final – the Malaysia Open 1996 – resulted in a loss to senior compatriots Cheah/Yap. Gradually the younger pair came into their own; they won the Commonwealth gold in 1998 beating Cheah/Yap, followed by the Singapore Open the next year, where they beat the legendary duo of Tony Gunawan and Candra Wijaya in an absorbing final.
While they were a highly skilled pair, they often fell in the latter stages of tournaments to more consistent opponents. A case in point was the All England: Lee and Choong first reached the semifinals in 1998 and were in three more semifinals (2001, 2003, 2008), earning a title shot twice (2004, 2006), but were stopped each time. In 2008 they were on the threshold of a third final, holding five match points against Lee Yong Dae and Chung Jae Sung, but failed to convert and went down in a thriller.
Likewise, at the two World Championships where they won bronze (2001 and 2007), they lost out on a final place by narrow margins.
After easing out of the circuit in 2011, Lee turned to coaching, establishing a company with his teammates, and later working with Koo Kien Keat and Tan Boon Heong as they attempted to qualify for Rio 2016.
Last year Lee landed a coaching job with the Japan junior national team and has since been promoted to the national B team as mixed doubles coach.
Referring to the evolution of doubles, Lee spoke of how specialisation had gained ground since his days: “There’s a huge difference. During my era, I started with the 15-point system. Even from the time the 21-point system started to now, there’s a huge difference. The players are getting faster, the speed is so high and the power is so great now. Some of it due to technology. Now the training is more specific, it’s more advanced.”
How has he adapted as coach to a young generation of players?
“The biggest challenge for me is the mind of players. To me as a coach, I try to use the best of what they have. Each player is different. His style might not suit my type of training, so I have to find another type of training for him. It’s difficult because you can’t be doing personal skills for each player. So usually we go around a basic kind of training, which is the basic kind of strokes and see how he can evolve from there.”