The swirl of debates around players turning independent might be overwhelming for those who choose this path, but for Lee Zii Jia, it all boils down to one thing – results.
With that as the focal point, everything else – almost by default – recedes into the background.
It is this focus on results that’s helping Lee navigate the tricky terrain of his early days as an independent player, and to face up to all the questions and arguments that weigh against that decision.
“I think the most important thing is results. When results come sponsors will come. That’s the reality. For myself, I will focus on results; other things will automatically follow. The main target for me this year is to stabilise my performance, not too much up and down like earlier. In my training programme, I need to focus more on that. And breaking into the top 5 is one of my targets.”
The Malaysian’s decision to turn independent of his national association in January drove a storm of conversations on social media. Few marketable icons of recent years chose to turn independent, and they too usually returned to their national teams.
Lee however is reluctant to base his decisions on the past; he prefers to think of the possibilities that remain to be explored.
“I wouldn’t like to compare myself with others, because everyone has a different character and a different journey. I think turning professional is the future of badminton and it could be a better future for badminton too. Players can get their own sponsors and use that money to invest in themselves and just try to do what they want. All of the younger players (should) have the right to choose what they want and the right to decide who they want to become.
“I have to say that the most comfortable place is always the national team because they have the funds, and you don’t worry about the money. You just focus on training, but turning professional, you have to worry about sponsors, you have to worry about funds. So for me, I would like to take up this challenge. And, of course, I think this is the future of badminton… in many countries players are already half-professional, like most of the European countries. I think we have to move on. The world is changing, the world is evolving also. We have to catch up. I think this will be good for players.”
Alongside his decision to turn independent, Lee has – consciously or not – cultivated a certain image. Having featured in music videos and with an active social media presence, Lee has a personality beyond just that of a badminton player. Is he in the process of building a brand?
He agrees – with a caveat.
“Of course, the main thing is I have to produce good results, only then will I have the market for my brand. I just want to concentrate on my badminton first. When things are getting better I will try to do other things.
“I think it (market) is getting better but what I’m trying to tell the younger players in Malaysia is that you will have to fight for your own value. When you have the value you can turn professional, and when there’s value sponsors come to you and there’s a market for you and yeah, you can find a sponsor more easily.”
His career as an independent player having got off to a tumultuous start, how is he finding the experience right now?
“So far I’m enjoying it. All I wanted is to play inside the court and enjoy every moment.”