Can Lee Zii Jia deliver Malaysia maiden Olympic gold?

Following the retirement of Lee Chong Wei, will the 21-year-old lead the nation's quest for Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 and beyond?

By Sanjeev Palar

Lee Chong Wei is undoubtedly Malaysia's greatest badminton player of all time.

With 705 career wins and 69 international titles to his name, his retirement after overcoming cancer has left a huge void in the sport.

No longer will the nation be able to count on the three-time Olympic and world silver medallist to fly the flag at international tournaments, including the BWF World Championships in Basel, which are live on Olympic Channel from 19-25 August (territorial restrictions apply).

Instead, with the search for his successor currently underway, one player has stepped into the limelight, Lee Zii Jia.

Malaysia's new singles top seed Lee Zii Jia

Lee looking to lead the way

By pure coincidence, Malaysia's badminton hopes shifts from one Lee to another. But that's where the similarities end.

They may be his first BWF World Championships, but Zii Jia was the highest-ranked Malaysian singles player entered, and was seeded 14 in Switzerland.

With only two international titles to his name thus far, the 21-year-old wasn't billed as someone challenging for the title, but on his day has proven capable of defeating some of the biggest names in the sport.

At this year's Indonesia Open, Zii Jia managed to overcome reigning Olympic champion Chen Long to advance to the quarters.

Not a bad effort for the youngster whose sporting ambition is to become an Olympic gold medallist.

Going into his maiden world championships, Badminton Association of Malaysia's (BAM) coaching director, Wong Choong Hann suggested that Zii Jia could rise to the occasion with "a very good chance of showcasing his talent against the top players".

Wong knows all about the challenge which lies ahead having been runner-up at the 2003 World Championships in Birmingham.

“If he can clear his first three matches, he should be meeting [Kento] Momota in the quarter-finals." - BAM coaching director Wong Choong Hann to

Malaysia's Wong Choon Hann on his way to silver at the 2003 Badminton World Championships

Rising through the ranks

Growing up, the thought of playing against a reigning world champion would have been beyond even Lee's wildest dreams.

Born in the northern-state of Kedah, he picked up the sport when he was six years old after his father took him along to a badminton club.

"I started playing just for health reasons before improving and getting better and better" - Lee Zii Jia to

He got so good at the game that at 12, he started representing his country.

Lee's international breakthrough came at the 2016 BWF World Junior Championships in Bilbao when he claimed the bronze medal.

At 19, he bagged his first international title at the 2017 Polish International.

The following year, he helped Malaysia to the bronze medal at the 2018 Asia Team Championships which took place in his home state of Kedah.

Lee Zii Jia in action during the 2018 Asian Games

Topping the World Tour podium

Last October, Lee caused a stir at the Chinese Taipei Open when he defeated home favourite and then world number four Chou Tien Chen in the semi-finals.

He then went to on to beat Japan's Riichi Takeshita in the final to secure a maiden BWF World Tour title.

It was a significant victory because up until then no Malaysian, other than Lee Chong Wei, had won a Badminton World Federation (BWF) top flight men's singles since Liew Daren took victory at the 2012 French Open.

Coming just weeks after Chong Wei's cancer diagnosis, it was a much-needed boost for Malaysia's badminton fans.

Stepping into the limelight

But this season has proved quite a challenge so far.

Up until July, Lee had reached the quarter-finals at six World Tour events without being able to progress further.

Despite the constant setbacks, he kept his head and focused on the bigger picture, posting on social media, "I just hope I can get through this problem and come back stronger in the next tournament."

Sure enough, at the Thailand Open at the start of August, Lee finally managed to break his quarter-finals jinx and made it to the semi-finals.

There, Chou Tien Chen had his revenge before taking the title.

But despite missing out on a shot at the title, for Lee it was a major psychological step forward.

"I told myself... no matter how, I must break through this situation. Finally, I did it and I’m happy." - Lee Zii Jia to

Looking to the future

With the legacy of Chong Wei hanging in the air, Lee Zii Jia knows he has big shoes to fill.

But he has the best resources at his disposal, with Chong Wei's former coach, Hendrawan overseeing his development.

The Indonesian, who won Olympic silver at Sydney 2000 and the world title the following year (while also 14th seed), is the ideal person to mould Malaysia's next potential badminton great.

While Hendrawan is aware that a good performance in Basel is important, in the long run they are pursing a much greater goal - to bring home Malaysia's maiden Olympic gold medal.

"This is Zii Jia's first world championships and I hope that he can gain a lot of experience from it. But our main focus however is to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games." - Coach Hendrawan to