Cooler and calmer Max Lee ready to make his mark at Hong Kong Open
Having shed his "Mad Max" outlook for a more self-assured and confident approach, Max Lee Ho-yin will begin his first Hong Kong Open as a fully fledged professional and dreaming big for the Asian Games in South Korea next month.
Lee, 26, is the first local men's Chinese player to earn a direct entry into the main draw of the US$220,000 Cathay Pacific Sun Hung Kai Financial Hong Kong Open. He has played in the main draw in the past, but all by virtue of either winning through the qualifying rounds, or getting a wild card.
That's not the case this time for the Tin Shui Wai resident who qualifies automatically by dint of his world ranking - an all-time high of 25.
A flurry of outstanding results - including wins over Egypt's world number nine Karim Darwish in March and then Spain's world No 7 Borja Golan at last week's Malaysian Open - has earned Lee the tag of giant-killer.
"I used to be stressed out before a match and worry a lot, but now I am more calm and relaxed. My mental game is far better and this has helped me improve. All this is due to a lot of hard work. The harder I train, I feel more confident in my mind," said Lee on the eve of his big day in front of his home fans.
Hong Kong's leading men's player will meet world number 10 Daryl Selby, of England, in the opening round at the Hong Kong Squash Centre on Tuesday night.
"I'm no longer worried about who I meet. In the past big names always gave me jitters and I used to stress but now I'm thinking of how I can beat him," said Lee.
"I have also changed my game from being mainly a defensive player to try to attack more. Before I would be happy to just keep retrieving and defend and hope my opponent would make a mistake, but now I'm trying to force him into mistakes."
Defending champion Nick Matthew (world No 2), of England, and Egyptian duo Ramy Ashour (No 4) and Amr Shabana (No 5) are either injured or unavailable for the tournament.
Lee pulled off a shock last week when he beat Golan 7-11, 11-7, 11-8, 11-7 in the semi-finals in Kuala Lumpur.
Egyptian top seed Mohamed El Shorbagy put an end to his dream run - his first final in a Professional Squash Association tournament - with a straight-games victory.
But Lee rates his win over Darwish as his biggest scalp. "He was then ranked around five or six in the world and that win gave me a lot of self-belief. But beating Golan and reaching my first final was very satisfying. I hope I can improve further," he said.
Lee is looking ahead to the Asian Games. "My world ranking, which will move up to the early 20s next month, will help me be one of the top seeds at the Asian Games which means I should have a clear run until the semis, and then who knows," he said.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong's squash players have a HK$1.1 million carrot dangling if they capture a gold medal in the team event in Incheon.
Hong Kong Squash will offer HK$300,000, on top of the HK$800,000 from the Sports Institute's incentive scheme, for a team gold. Individual gold medallists can bag an extra HK$150,000 on top of the institute's HK$400,000. "The additional cash awards are big incentives to push us to work harder," said Hong Kong No 1 Annie Au Wing-chi.