Korea Light Up Gold Coast

As one of the most remarkable badminton stories played out in Gold Coast yesterday, the question on most minds was – how had the Koreans done it?

A team that was, on paper, the weakest of the traditional powerhouses, and with several of their great doubles stars having either retired recently or chosen to stay away, had pulled off one of the biggest surprises in badminton history. The TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017 couldn’t have hoped for a more climactic finish on its debut in Oceania.

New head coach Kang Kyung Jin had given a hint at the beginning of the tournament of what he expected of his team.

“We’re hoping to make the final,” he’d said, but few took notice. After all, there were other teams with greater depth, balance, and more crucially, experience. The Koreans had arrived in Gold Coast with a clutch of teenagers. The vehicle essentially had to move on three wheels – Son Wan Ho in Men’s Singles, Sung Ji Hyun in Women’s Singles, and Chang Ye Na/Lee So Hee in Women’s Doubles. Any other victory would be a bonus.

And yet, with Son Wan Ho unavailable for the final, it was a tribute to the Koreans’ spirit that Choi Solgyu and Chae Yoo Jung turned the tables on the super-achieving Mixed Doubles Chinese pair, Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong, who flailed about in a torrent of nervous errors.

“When we started we were asked about our Men’s Doubles, and we were called a weak team, said Kang. “We tried to build our team spirit. We were in it together, and we believed we could do it.”

At the other end of the spectrum, China’s doubles coach Zhang Jun struggled to make sense of the abject collapse of their two heralded pairs.

“I think it was a combination of pressure and tiredness,” Zhang said. “Chen Qingchen played two matches in the semi-final; the second match finished quite late and there was no time to recover. We finished our team meeting only by 2am. But we decided to persist with Chen and Jia Yifan because they had good results against the Korean pair (Chang and Lee).”

China’s singles coach Xia Xuanze sought to explain the outcome as a result of the ongoing changes in the management of the team.

“We have a new structure and a new approach, with a lot of young players,” said Xia. “We tried some new strategies. We’re facing stronger opponents than ever before. We were pushed hard in the semi-final by Japan. It’s a good thing for us, as we will motivate ourselves to work even harder.”

Korea’s victory of the World Mixed Team Championships after 14 years promises the start of a new chapter for the country and for world badminton. It has been long since Korea savoured success in a team event, or even in multiple categories at the World Superseries or BWF World Championships. Head coach Kang and his team got the best possible start they could have hoped for with a young squad.

“This is a miracle,” Kang said. “Perhaps we will get more attention and more funding now. This can be a turning point for Korean badminton.”

‘Seoul’ Satisfying! – Final: TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017

Korea sensationally snapped China’s 14-year vice-grip on the Sudirman Cup, coming from behind twice to shock the ten-time champions in a 3-2 upset in the finale of the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017.

Before an increasingly boisterous crowd in Gold Coast, Australia, the underdogs – packed with young and relatively inexperienced players – produced a courageous, soul-stirring revival of Korean badminton less than a year after the powerhouse limped out of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with one bronze to its name.

What an amazing result for Kang Kyung Jin mere months after assuming the mantle of head coach of a squad depleted of its core of star athletes who exited the international scene late last year. The sight of this father-figure storming centre court and bear-hugging his young warriors was truly a tear-jerker.

“Before the event we were asked about our Men’s Doubles players, and we were called a weak team,” said Kang. “We tried to build our team spirit. We were in it together, and we believed we could do it.”

The bare facts first: Korea won the World Mixed Team Championships for the first time since 2003 – their fourth title overall. China were on a streak of six straight victories; with ten titles overall and an assembly of stars. They were red-hot favourites to add an eleventh title.

Few – if any – gave Korea a chance of topping the podium on Sunday.

“A miracle,” declared Kang after his side made the final yesterday.

That his team would surpass China in such dramatic fashion was perhaps something that even he dared not express.

Korea staged rear-guard recoveries both times they were down. As the tie entered the fifth match – the Mixed Doubles – China seemed to have the upper-hand, with Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong – winners of four events this season – facing Choi Solgyu and Chae Yoo Jung.

However, it was Choi and Chae who were unfazed and inspired. The Koreans barely did a thing wrong. After losing a close first game, the Chinese started to falter – with even the normally composed Huang being outplayed by the sharp Chae at net and making elementary mistakes. Choi kept soaring high, converting half-chances with blistering smashes and leaving the Chinese ashen-faced with every point lost. The winner came on the 51st minute – 21-17 21-13. A jubilant Korean team stormed the court and Chae and Choi were buried under a heap of bodies.

“I was nervous,” said Chae, who was actually the steadiest player on court. “We hadn’t played well earlier, but it was the last match, and I thought there was nothing to lose. I was thankful to my team-mates for keeping us in the tie and taking it to the last match.”

None of this drama appeared likely with the tie beginning as expected: China held all the aces in the opening Men’s Doubles encounter between Fu Haifeng/Zhang Nan and their Korean challengers Choi Solgyu/Seo Seung Jae.

The Chinese were always assured of victory with Fu’s bludgeoning smash in their hands. Korea had nothing in their arsenal with which to hurt their opponents. Fu and Zhang, the tandem that has delivered so frequently for China on the biggest stages, once again combined with instinctual precision that left no room for Korea to manoeuvre. China had the lead in 42 minutes: 21-14 21-15.

Sung Ji Hyun had been Korea’s solitary flag-bearer in Women’s Singles this tournament, but if the exertions had weighed her down, she didn’t allow it to affect her against He Bingjiao. The Korean, relying upon the steady game that she is known for, barely made a mistake in spinning a web that entangled He Bingjiao. The Chinese was made to run endlessly, and when she attempted to inject pace, the Korean’s exemplary footwork was well in place as she calmly returned the shuttle to prolong the rallies.

It was smooth sailing for Sung until a brief spell in the second game saw some jittery play. He Bingjiao inched to within four points of her rival, but a slice of luck for Sung saw her get to match point, and she closed it out: 21-12 21-16.

Against a lesser player than Chen Long, Jeon Hyeok Jin might have come away a winner in the Men’s Singles. The Korean did everything right. Unruffled by the enormity of the challenge, he showed courage and his game was on target – tight net shots; judicious attack; no hesitation in taking Chen on in the rallies.

Chen is the Olympic champion though and made of a different steel – and nothing that Jeon threw his way could rattle him. Always a split-second ahead, there was an assured calmness about him that left no room for an upset. His vicious smashes homing in on the lines; his footwork always in place no matter the power or angle at which Jeon smashed, Chen gave nothing away. Jeon fought gamely, and though defeated 21-10 21-10, he didn’t come away disgraced.

Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan had delivered the semi-final tie for China against Japan with a power-packed performance against Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi. Korea’s Chang Ye Na and Lee So Hee, however, delivered a masterclass in countering the aggressive Chinese. Defending astutely and dragging their opponents into long rallies, the Koreans sniped off points; having lost a close first game, the frustrated Chen and Jia fell apart and the Koreans surged home, 21-19 21-13.

It was up to Choi and Chae to carry the flag. Fifty-one minutes later, what had seemed almost impossible transformed into concrete reality: Korea, champions of the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017!

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Steely Survival – Day 7 (Session 2): TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017

Perennial title-holders, China, withstood all that Japan threw at them tonight to advance to tomorrow’s finale of the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017 in Gold Coast, Australia.

The defending champions reached their 12th final with a sterling semi-final effort that blended the old guard, in Men’s Singles supremo Lin Dan, and the new generation of athletes entrusted with upholding their nation’s badminton legacy, in Men’s Doubles pair Li Junhui/Liu Yuchen and Chen Qingchen/Jia Yifan in Women’s Doubles.

Displaying the mettle for which they are well known, the Chinese rebounded from the shock demise of Zheng Siwei and 19-year-old Chen in the opening Mixed Doubles match to triumph 3-2 against long-time adversaries, Japan; runners-up two years ago in Dongguan. Chen shook off her failure in the Mixed discipline admirably to sound the death knell in the decisive Women’s Doubles match. She and Jia Yifan outgunned Olympic gold medallists, Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi, 21-12 21-19; the latter evidently far from their best when their country most needed it.

“We are very excited to win the most important point for China. We prepared well and we asked our coaches to give us this chance tonight. Now we want to get a good’s night rest and get ready for the final,” said an exuberant Jia as her team-mates celebrated.

China will now clash with Korea, who defeated Thailand 3-1 earlier in the day, for the BWF World Mixed Team Championship at Gold Coast Sports & Leisure Centre which has hosted an absorbing week-long tournament. Tonight provided another thrilling instalment as fortunes see-sawed one way and then the other with the challengers striking first, thanks to exciting young duo, Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino’s upset victory over the world No.1 partnership of Zheng and Chen.

Down to their last of five match points in a nail-biting decider, the Japanese composed themselves to face serve. Watanabe’s firm return straight at Zheng seemed to catch him by surprise and he parried it erroneously. Watanabe flung himself into the air and then hugged his partner at the 21-12 14-21 21-19 result.

“Yes, we did it! I thought we could upset them. I am so happy,” declared the compact Watanabe.

That joy, however, was short-lived as the iconic Lin Dan coolly put his team on level terms, winning Men’s Singles 21-16 21-19 versus Kenta Nishimoto. The 33-year-old star admitted feeling “nervous” as he badly wanted to deliver for China. Next up were his young compatriots, Li and Liu, in one of the key matches. The Chinese twin towers manfully imposed their power hitting on their opponents – Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda – in the second game, having eked out the first after saving a game point. Liu produced some sizzling kills at net while his partner proved equally lethal in attacking from deep. The barrage of shots wore down the Japanese who succumbed 23-21 21-16, sending China ahead 2-1 in the tie.

On to Women’s Singles where Akane Yamaguchi efficiently kept Japan’s chances alive with a controlled the 21-17 21-15 win over Sun Yu, again locking the scores 2-2. This left matters in the balance with both teams needing to clinch the Women’s Doubles match.

MORE TO COME

Korea Storm into Final – Day 7 (Session 1): TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017

When Korean head coach Kang Kyung Jin predicted at the start of the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017 that his team would likely make the final, only the team’s staunchest supporters would’ve expected that to come true.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened as the three-time champions, having arrived in Gold Coast with a clutch of teenaged players, surged into the final beating Thailand 3-1.

When Women’s Singles ace Sung Ji Hyun (featured image) extracted an error after a nervous spell against Ratchanok Intanon in the fourth match of the semi-final tie, it marked a special chapter in Korean badminton – for the Asian powerhouse had arrived in Gold Coast without their biggest names. For Sung, it was a battle to prove herself – for, as she later admitted, she had often faltered in crunch semi-final and final matches. The destination is still in sight, but for Korea, to make the final itself was a herculean task at the beginning of the Sudirman Cup.

For a while on Saturday, though, it looked like it was going to be Thailand’s day in the sun.

Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai, their talismanic Mixed Doubles combination of recent times, were top-notch against Choi Solgyu and Chae Yoo Jung in the opening match. Puavaranukroh was a picture of frenetic energy and creative shotmaking, opening up the court with some acute angles from the deep, while Taerattanachai overshadowed her opposite number Chae Yoo Jung by disallowing her any leeway at the net. All through the match, Chae barely exerted her presence at the front, with the Thais successful in pushing the Koreans back and surging forward at the first opportunity. The Thais finished off the job in 41 minutes, 21-16 21-12.

All the pressure was on Korea’s Men’s Singles spearhead Son Wan Ho –  his opponent Suppanyu Avihingsanon, despite losing five previous matches to the Korean, flew with the momentum his compatriots had created. The tall Thai was all aggression and pace as he pocketed the first game, and it took all of Son’s defensive brilliance to rein him in. The Korean gradually found his tempo, and yet it was a tight match until 17 in the third, after which Avihingsanon made four soft errors to hand Son the match: 18-21 21-10 21-17.

“My legs felt heavy because of the matches I played this week,” said Son. “I felt tired in the first game, but knew I had to win. I’ve beaten him five times before, but in February it went to three games. Also, today is the semifinal and I was under greater pressure. He is an attacking player, I had to focus on my defence and cut down on my errors.”

After his exuberant display in the Mixed Doubles, it was a deflated Dechapol Puavaranukroh who turned up for the Men’s Doubles with Bodin Isara against Choi Solgyu and Seo Seung Jae. There was little spark in the Thai combination – Bodin was unusually leaden-footed, while Puavaranukroh’s touch let him down. At the opposite end, it was youngster Jae who stood out, both for his nearly error-free play as for his stunning winners off unusual angles.

There were some terrific, fast-paced exchanges in the opening game, and once the Koreans had it sewn up, they were mostly in control in the second. The 21-13 21-16 victory for Choi and Seo meant Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon had a rescue job on her hands.

The Thai however was way below her best, unable to stick in the rallies that Sung forced her into and erring with the fine placements that she is usually masterly at. With a 16-5 lead in the second, Sung was cruising, but some late jitters saw Intanon creep up to within three points before the Korean converted her third match point.

Intanon said nerves had gotten the better of her: “I didn’t feel good at all today, and I was nervous. I had no trouble with injury… it took me a while to find my rhythm, but it was too late by then.”

Korean head coach Kang beamed from ear to ear.

“It is just amazing,” he said. “We’ve made history. This year our team was called weak. At the last minute our senior Men’s Doubles players left the team. We targetted the quarter-final. Now we are so happy. This is my third happiest moment – the first time was when I got married, the second when I got my child. This is the third memorable occasion.

“The last two years have not been good for Korean badminton. Now we’re trying to set up a new generation and looking ahead at Tokyo 2020. ”

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‘Vietnam Vet’ Shines – Day 6 (Session 2): TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017

Vietnam secured Group 2 bragging rights tonight, sweeping aside Singapore 3-1 in the play-off for 13th place at the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017.

The two top teams in the group clashed at Gold Coast Sports & Leisure Centre to determine which of them would emerge victorious in the second tier of the tournament. Vietnam struck the first blow as Do Tuan Duc and Pham Nhu Thao got the better of Danny Bawa Chrisnanta and Wong Jia Ying in Mixed Doubles, prevailing 21-18 23-21.

Then came the battle of the ages with 34-year-old Nguyen Tien Minh locking horns with 19-year-old Singaporean, Ng Zin Rei, in Men’s Singles. The latter showed good attacking skills in the first game, earning leads of 10-5 and 20-15 against the 2013 World Championship bronze medallist. However, he was unable to close out the game as the wily Nguyen capitalised on a series of errors by his inexperienced opponent, snatching the advantage.

The second game was a cakewalk for Nguyen as the younger Ng, ironically, ran out of steam and was at the mercy of the Vietnam veteran who peppered all corners of the court with shots en route to his 25-23 21-9 triumph.

“In the first game, he was very fast and I couldn’t keep up with him. He is much younger than me and I just had to wait for him to slow down. Luckily he made some mistakes and I was able to win that game. It was much easier in the second game,” said Nguyen.

Meanwhile, Ng rued his impatience which cost him dearly and acknowledged he needs to improve his stamina to compete at senior level.

“I was banking on winning the first game but I was in a rush. I gave away about six points at the end of it,” said the teenager, adding that it was an honour to play against someone of his rival’s calibre.

The Singaporeans pulled a point back thanks to Chrisnanta and Terry Hee in Men’s Doubles. They beat Do and Pham Hong Nam, 21-12 21-16, but Vu Thi Trang saw Vietnam to victory, winning her Women’s Singles match, 21-11 21-11, versus Chua Hui Zhen.

Meanwhile, Australia gave local fans something to cheer about in their last outing of the tournament. The home team came from ‘Down Under’ to defeat Canada 3-2 to determine 15th and 16th places overall.

Once again, Sawan Serasinghe and Setyana Mapasa starred prominently as the hosts won all three doubles matches while Canada took both singles. The pair combined to conquer Nyl Yakura and Josephine Wu in Mixed Doubles (21-13 21-16) and returned later to rescue Australia after Canada’s Jason Ho-Shue and Michelle Li had seized the advantage with singles victories. Men’s Doubles combination, Serasinghe and Matthew Chau, levelled the tie 2-2 before Mapasa and Gronya Somerville sealed the result. They held off Li and Rachel Honderich, 21-12 13-21 21-17, to end on a memorable note.

In the play-off for 17th and 18th positions, Scotland put a swift end to the USA, winning 3-0 and all in straight games.

Martin Campbell/Patrick MacHugh set the Scots on their way in Men’s Doubles, beating Vinson Chiu/Timothy Lam, 21-12 21-15. Women’s Singles player, Kirsty Gilmour, followed suit with her 21-9 21-17 win over Jamie Subandhi. The final rites were left to Kieran Merrilees and he obliged, ousting Nicholas Waller 21-7 21-6.

“We had hoped for better but we have a young team as we lost three or four experienced players in the past few years. There’s a player here earning her first cap in the Sudirman Cup on the other side of the world,” noted 23-year-old Gilmour.

“If we had beaten Canada in our opening match, things could have been different. Nonetheless it’s been great, especially ahead of the Commonwealth Games here next year.”

The last Group 2 tie saw New Zealand triumph over Austria 3-1 to determine 19th and 20th place in the 27-team tournament. Oliver Leydon-Davis won Mixed Doubles with sister, Susannah, and later Men’s Doubles with Kevin Dennerly-Minturn.

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