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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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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China, Japan to Face Off – Day 6 (Session 1): TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017

Last edition finalists China and Japan booked a semi-final meeting at the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017 with one-sided victories today in Gold Coast.

There were no surprises in either quarter-final – Japan versus Malaysia and China versus India – although India’s scratch Mixed Doubles combination Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa did create some flutters against World No.2 duo Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong in the opening match before China took the tie 3-0. A short while later, Japan wrapped up their quarter-final against Malaysia 3-1.

Rankireddy, perhaps the find of the tournament, had the Chinese under pressure with his monster smashes, giving Ponnappa the openings she needed to put away the returns that came her way. Lu and Huang struggled to contain the rampant Indians, who played with great assurance and touch at the front court to deny their opponents any opportunities.

Lu and Huang, veterans of many a battle, seized the initiative early in the second and held their lead. The Indians went ahead briefly in the third but Lu and Huang had started to anticipate the Indians’ lines of attack and reeled in quick points.  Rankireddy and Ponnappa faltered on the delicate shots at net and the Chinese eventually came away winners at 16-21 21-13 21-16.

“We had a good chance, we had the confidence that we could pull it off,” said Ponnappa. “They’re very experienced, while we’re just starting off as a pair. Satwik has to get used to pressure situations. It’s kind of fun playing with him, because he’s strong and his game style complements mine. I’ve started moving into the net. In the past I’ve always run back and never taken charge. Having a promising player like Satwik to partner with is a huge confidence booster.”

World champion Chen Long had a 4-0 career record going into his Men’s Singles match-up with Kidambi Srikanth and nothing suggested that the Indian would get his first win, for the Chinese was at his fluid, powerful best.

Kidambi did little wrong; he varied the pace, worked the shuttle around and fired sharp winners through the narrow openings he crafted. The Indian stayed close but couldn’t quite wriggle free, for the quick-moving Chinese was invariably at the end of the flicks and half-smashes that Kidambi created. The frustration started to show in the Indian’s game and it was 2-0 for China in 48 minutes: 21-16 21-17.

“My opponent was very good, and he strongly challenged me in the second game,” said Chen. “We have to be our best tomorrow. The Japanese Men’s Singles players are quite young and have already got the opportunity to play at this level, so we have to be cautious. More than the pressure from outside, I will be putting pressure on myself to perform well.”

India’s Men’s Doubles pair were just not up to the level required to trouble Fu Haifeng and Zhang Nan. Rankireddy returned with Chirag Shetty and the duo were blown off court by the Olympic champions, 21-9 21-11, in just 29 minutes.

Japan’s victory over Malaysia followed the same pattern as in their sub-group 1C tie on Wednesday. For Malaysia, everything hinged on their Men’s Doubles pair of Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong getting past Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda (featured image), given Japan’s superior Women’s Singles and Women’s Doubles. Goh and Tan hit their stride mid-match against Sonoda and Kamura, but the Japanese kept up their high-intensity style, and the energy-sapping rallies started to tell on the Malaysians in the third as they fell apart in the hour-long battle: 21-17 16-21 21-11.

Soniia Cheah replaced Goh Jin Wei in Women’s Singles for Malaysia while Japan fielded Nozomi Okuhara. It was too vast a gulf for Cheah to cover, with the nimble Okuhara controlling the match from start to finish: 21-11 21-9.

Lee Chong Wei, as expected, delivered Men’s Singles for Malaysia over Kenta Nishimoto (21-15 21-13), leaving the burden of salvaging the nation’s hopes on Vivian Hoo and Woon Khe Wei. The Malaysian Women’s Doubles duo had taken only one game off Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi in nine previous matches. The Japanese duly made it ten wins in ten matches with a 21-7 21-14 result.

“We played Malaysia in the group stage as well, we weren’t sure who we would face today,” said Takahashi. “After we won the Men’s Doubles, we went in feeling good and there wasn’t any pressure.

“We lost the Sudirman Cup final to China two years ago. All the Chinese players are good. Our role is that of challengers. We always enjoy playing China and we have to prepare our best. They have won the Sudirman Cup six times in a row and we appreciate the opportunity to fight against them. It’s a big challenge in front of us.”

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Australia Falter to Singapore – Day 5 (Session 1): TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017

Singapore emerged on top of sub-group 2B after overcoming Australia 4-1 at the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017 in Gold Coast today.

Singapore will next take on sub-group 2A winners Vietnam to decide the winners of Group 2 (overall 13th place).

The hosts were expected to trouble Singapore but it all unraveled for Australia early in the second game of their opening Mixed Doubles contest.

Sawan Serasinghe and Setyana Mapasa had stayed in sight of Terry Hee and Tan Wei Han, but after 11-all in the first, the Singaporeans forged ahead. The second game began nightmarishly for Serasinghe and Mapasa as they just couldn’t get a thing right. Errors flowed from their rackets and Hee/Tan ran away with 14 of 15 points to effectively shut the door on the Australians: 21-16 21-6.

Ryan Ng made it 2-0 for Singapore with a comfortable 21-16 21-14 result over Ashwant Gobinathan in their Men’s Singles.

“The shuttle is pretty slow; I’m an aggressive player so I had to play patiently today,” said Ng. “I had to make sure I didn’t rush my shots. I’ve seen him play, he’s a good player; it was about taking one point at a time. I’m looking forward to playing Vietnam; to play (Nguyen) Tien Minh will be a good experience.”

Serasinghe returned with Matthew Chau for the Men’s Doubles against Danny Bawa Chrisnanta and Terry Hee.

The Australians struggled in the beginning but finally made their presence felt with some consistent and sharp play in the second. They fought off a 15-18 deficit with four straight points, but they couldn’t capitalise on the opportunity with the game in their grasp. Chrisnanta and Terry Hee converted their second match point: 21-14 23-21.

“We didn’t get the best start, but we did manage to pull it back in the end,” said Serasinghe. “It was the minor little errors and shot choices that made the difference.”

“(In the first match) We started well, everything went perfect, but when Terry came and increased the pace a bit, we started making errors and we were unable to get ourselves back. The coach told me he would give me ten minutes to vent it out, but that I had to focus on Men’s Doubles after that.

“We definitely wanted to create an upset and make the crowd proud, and hopefully get a win against Singapore. Overall it’s been good, everyone played well, I’m fairly happy but disappointed at the same time.”

Yeo Jia Min (featured image) continued Singapore’s dominance, shutting out Wendy Chen 21-11 21-17 in Women’s Singles before Gronya Somerville and Setyana Mapasa picked up the consolation win for Australia beating Ong Ren-Ne/Crystal Wong 21-11 21-15.

Sri Lanka Win Group 3

Sri Lanka comfortably finished on top of Group 3 beating Macau 3-0, ensuring they finished overall 21st.

Buwenaka Goonathileka and Kavindi Ishandika Sirimannage gave Sri Lanka the lead in Mixed Doubles, easing past Iek U Leong/Gong Xue Xin 21-10 21-4.

Niluka Karunaratne was challenged in the first game of Men’s Singles by Pui Pang Fong, but the challenge fell apart in the second, 21-17 21-6.

Thilini Pramodika Hendahewa needed just 21 minutes to blow away Ng Weng Chi, 21-9 21-7.

“Group 3 was quite easy for us,” said Karunaratne, who is back in Sri Lanka after a long stint in the German league. “It would’ve been nice to play Group 2. But to go back as winners of Group 3 feels good.

“There’s a bunch of our players who can do well internationally… there are plans for a comprehensive training programme that will hopefully start in a few months. Badminton became popular in Sri Lanka after the London Olympics. It’s the most popular game in Sri Lanka after cricket and there are a lot of talented players who need the experience of top level badminton. We have to follow India’s example. India is at a different level now, they’re doing great. If we can learn from them and develop, it will be good for all of us.”

In other Group 3 ties to decide placings, Fiji beat Guam 3-1 while Slovakia got the better of New Caledonia 3-0. Slovakia finished third in the group (overall 23rd) while Fiji finished fifth, ahead of Guam and New Caledonia.

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