Being selected into the 1958 Thomas Cup squad was an honour for 18-year-old (now Dato’) Tan Yee Khan. Unfortunately, it came with a hefty price as Tan was scheduled to sit for his Senior Cambridge examination during the tournament period.
He recalled, “I was summoned by Brother Director who gave me a two-hour lecture on the importance of education. And then he told me, that if I were to forgo my studies, I have to make sure that I become the World Champion. Brother Pius Kelly, who also supported me financially in my badminton exploits, said that it would then only be worth the sacrifice.”
Growing up, Tan played a number of sports from basketball to football, volleyball and golf. At about 12 years old, he concentrated on badminton when his father became a caterer at a sports club in Ipoh, where top state badminton players trained. The club also hosted many major tournaments which attracted the participation of national champions.
According to Tan, the players selflessly shared tips and tricks of the game with him. (Dato’) Eddy Choong, then already four-time champion of the All England Open also took him under his wing and hosted Tan for three months in Penang, where they sparred daily.
“To hone my skills, after classes, I would spend an average of four hours at the courts until my mother had to chase me out with a rotan,” he laughed.
All that practice and training were obviously not in vain, as Tan began to win even more tournaments, both in singles and doubles, representing his school and Perak state.
After a Combined Schools Sports Meet in Singapore, it was suggested that Tan partner with another doubles player from Ipoh, (Dato’) Ng Boon Bee. That partnership turned out to be formidable as Tan, a six-footer, would cover the base and Ng, significantly shorter, would cover the net.
Winning the Perak Open in 1960 was a breakthrough for Tan, who bagged the singles title and partnering Ng, the doubles. From then on, there was no stopping the indomitable pair, with their speed, power, strength and skills. Their career highlights include All-England Open wins in 1965 and 1966, as well as lifting the Thomas Cup in 1967, establishing themselves as the pair to beat.
Tan wasn’t only a champion doubles player as he was just as good playing singles. In 1964, Tan won the World Invitational Tournament in Tokyo, Japan but it cost him and Ng the doubles title when he had to forfeit the game in the final, much to his partner’s chagrin.
From that incident, Tan decided to concentrate fully on doubles, although during the 1966 All-England Open, he was also entered to play in the singles and in the first match, won against the then World Number One, Danish Erland Kops. It was during the rubber game of that match that Tan gained the reputation of being the hardest smasher in the world. At 13-love in Tan’s favour, Kops served a half-court ball. Tan smashed the shuttle but it went past his racquet, through a hole in the string bed.
In 1972, Tan retired from competitive badminton following a serious back and brain injury sustained in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) during the 1969 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games. He was unconscious for 24 hours and hospitalised for 20 days.
Tan took up golf instead. He said, “At that time, one of the most asked questions was how long it would take me to be a golf champion.” He took nine months before being crowned national champion and was amateur champion for four consecutive years before turning professional.
Even as Tan was enjoying his new sporting career, an opportunity arose for him to return to badminton when he was offered the post of National Chief Coach at the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM). Taking six months to decide, he eventually took up the challenge, saying, “I felt that my expertise was needed to cure Malaysia’s badminton from an illness.”
In just nine months, Tan’s coaching team produced champions the likes of the Sidek brothers and Foo Kok Keong. Cheah Soon Kit was only 14 years old then, studying in Ipoh. Tan travelled home to Ipoh weekly to train the young Cheah.
After five years as National Chief Coach, Tan remained with BAM for another two years until 1987 as Chief Consultant.
Besides his involvement in sports, Tan was hired to work at the National Electricity Board. His first posting was in the street lighting department in Petaling Jaya and subsequently as a meter reader in Ipoh for five years before being promoted to meter examiner with twenty people under his charge.
After serving thirty years with the National Electricity Board, Tan took optional retirement and began helping out at his family resort, Sea View Hotel & Holiday Resort in Pasir Bogak, Pangkor, which he now manages following his father’s demise.
Tan, who will celebrate his 75th birthday on September 21, is still very much interested in the badminton scene in Malaysia and he had this to say: “Players must know themselves and train to be the best. These days, young players do not take the initiative to observe and study the games of better players. In fact, they must study their own game and never repeat the same mistakes.”
The two-time All-England men’s doubles champion and Thomas Cupper was inducted in the World Badminton Hall of Fame in 1998. Yet, for all that he and his badminton contemporaries had achieved for Malaysia and the sacrifices they made, it is disheartening to see that they are still not given due recognition by their own Government.
Note: An edited version of this article [Sports icon: Dato’ Tan Yee Khan] was published on 12th September, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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