For Lee Zii Jia badminton appears to have become characterised by joylessness.
Malaysia’s top men’s singles player is looking decidedly worn out after being worn down by cannier badminton brains in major championships.
It is such a disappointment that at this stage in his career, he is getting it spectacularly wrong against feistier players.
The world No 16 has been painfully awful in the World Tour series, and has become an expert in finding ways to lose in critical moments of matches.
He found another tortured variation on that theme at last week’s Hong Kong Open, getting swept out of the second round in three sets by Taiwan’s world No 37 Lee Chia-hao.
It was the 11th time he had failed to get past the last 16 stage out of 14 World Tour starts, and his third consecutive early round exit after the world meet and the China Open.
No wonder they call Zii Jia badminton’s first and second round exit specialist.
Let’s be honest about it: his recent badminton life has been a dog’s dinner in terms of his progression.
And having enjoyed support since being world No 4 last year, the recent defeats he has suffered are about as brutal a referendum on the current state of his popularity as anyone could imagine.
The former All-England and Asian champion has tested goodwill with fans in his attempts to get the monkey off his back and find his groove.
There is a growing sense that Zii Jia lacks the ideal skillset to dominate play despite decent pace, good instincts and sometimes exceptional finishing.
But for all the technical analysis, the concern lingers that Zii Jia’s greatest weakness might come down to mental frailty and an inability to deal with the fans’ expectations.
Some have argued that the short turnaround time between tournaments, and the fact that Zii Jia had to play top players in the early rounds because of his low world ranking, took a toll on him.
But have Zii Jia and his team done enough to manage the pressure? Why has it taken so long for him to bounce back from his slump?
There are those who would contend, with justification, that his troubles with the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM), and going independent, have hurt him.
It is not easy to get a clear sense of direction when there is so much flux around you, and that has been the case for Zii Jia these past months.
If he looks at his now diminished status with a sense of remorse, and ponders over the stability of his coaching set-up, then he only has himself to blame.
Those hoping for a statement of intent from Zii Jia in his pursuit of gold at the Asian Games in Hangzhou from Sept 23-Oct 8 might be disappointed.
He has little time to consolidate his form and face the many Asian players who have grown in strength, technique, precision and power.
Zii Jia, who trains under coach Wong Tat Meng, needs to be on the podium at the Asian Games to justify his place in the Road to Gold programme.
The performance of the other shuttlers at the games will also determine who will remain in the programme for next year’s Paris Olympics, and who will be out.
On Sunday, we were left with a cloying feeling of what might have been when, after showing early promise, top national women’s doubles pair Pearly Tan and M Thinaah lost in the final at the Hong Kong Open.
Overall, team Malaysia had a fairly good outing with Ng Tze Yong (men’s singles), Goh Soon Huat-Shevon Lai (mixed doubles), Goh Jin Wei (women’s singles) making the semi-finals.
They displayed guts and resilience but lacked the power to get past their rivals, and the question now is where will our shuttlers end up on the scale in Hangzhou.
Lee Zii Jia collapses on the court after his second round loss in the Malaysia Masters in May. (Bernama pic)
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.