Tuesday 21 December 2021

Singapore's first badminton World Champion: Loh Kean Yew wins BWF 2021 World Championships on 19 December 2021

Singapore's Loh Kean Yew is badminton world champion
By David Lee, The Straits Times, 20 Dec 2021

History took 43 hectic minutes, two games and 78 points.

At the end of it, unseeded national shuttler Loh Kean Yew stunned the badminton world by becoming the first Singaporean to win the World Championships.

On Sunday (Dec 19), the Singaporean world No. 22 upset India's world No. 14 Srikanth Kidambi 21-15, 22-20 in the final in Huelva, Spain.

On the final point, when a push to the back court landed in, Loh sank to his knees but ascended into sporting legend.

In a single, inspired week, he has crafted one of the greatest moments in this nation's sporting folklore.

And few would know he did it on one good ankle.

The 24-year-old rolled his right ankle while trying to save a shuttle in Friday’s quarter-final win over India’s Prannoy H. S. and had to use a wheelchair after beating Denmark’s Anders Antonsen in the semi-final on Saturday.

He told The Straits Times: “I thought I was finished because it hurt like hell, and I couldn’t walk. But I told myself to push through the pain and go all out in the final, and coped with ice and some treatment, and it paid off.

“I’m super, super happy. This feels like a dream, and now it’s a dream come true. I grew up watching Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei playing such big finals and now I’m here as the world champion. It’s unbelievable.

“I’m honoured to deliver this first gold for Singapore. I know many Singaporeans have been staying up to follow my progress, and I want to thank everyone for their support and for being a huge motivation.

"I feel I have improved over the past few months, but I still have a long way to go to be where I want to be, and I will continue to work hard to be even better as I chase my dream of winning an Olympic medal for Singapore."

Since the competition's inception in 1977, only four countries - China, Indonesia, Denmark and Japan - have won gold in the men's singles, and now, Singapore has one of its own.

In the final, Loh displayed courage and composure despite his injury.

He was 9-3 down in the opening frame but roared back. At 12-12, he flung himself to the ground to retrieve a smash and bounced right up for the kill.

From that moment, he never looked back.

The second game followed a similar vein, and Kidambi was up 18-16, but the underdog was relentless in his quest to become world champion, and did so after winning his third match point.

In the other finals, China's world No. 3 pair of Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan beat fourth-ranked South Koreans Lee So-hee and Shin Seung-chan 21-16, 21-17 to add to their 2017 women's doubles world title.

Elsewhere, there were new world champions as Japan's world No. 3 Akane Yamaguchi beat Chinese Taipei's top-ranked Tai Tzu-ying 21-14, 21-11 in the women's singles final.

In the men's doubles final, Japan's world No. 4 Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi beat China's 24th-ranked He Jiting and Tan Qiang 21-12, 21-18. And in the mixed doubles final, Thailand's world No. 1 Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai beat Japan's world No. 4 Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino 21-13, 21-14.

But for Singapore badminton, it has been more than a decade since it has made ripples of some magnitude on the international stage.

Loh's breakthrough will easily rank among Singapore's greatest sporting feats, which include swimmer Joseph Schooling's 100m butterfly gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016, as well as Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu, Sun Beibei, Li Jiawei and Yu Mengyu's "Miracle in Moscow", when they upset mighty China to win the World Team Table Tennis Championships in 2010.

Fu Mingtian claimed the last of the nation's three SEA Games golds when she won the women's singles in 2011, while Li Li remains its only Commonwealth Games champion after winning the women's singles in 2002.

Further back, the late Wong Peng Soon won the last of his four All England titles in 1955.

Singapore President Halimah Yacob led the plaudits as she congratulated Loh in a Facebook post, and wrote: “Thank you for flying the Singapore flag high, by dint of sheer hard work and perseverance. We are all proud of you.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong added: “Well done, Kean Yew! You do Singapore proud. Looking forward to your next success!”

Carving his place among badminton’s elite, Loh has beaten six out of the world’s top 10 players in the past three months.

Besides capturing the Dutch Open and Hylo Open titles, he also claimed the scalps of Japan's then world No. 1 Kento Momota (Indonesia Open), Malaysia's world No. 7 and All England champion Lee Zii Jia (French Open) and Chinese Taipei's world No. 4 Chou Tien-chen (Hylo Open).

Loh's meteoric rise caps a tremendous year for Singapore sport, as it continues to punch above its weight on the international stage.

Swimmer Yip Pin Xiu won two golds at the Aug 24-Sept 5 Tokyo Paralympics, pool pro Aloysius Yapp reached the summit of the world rankings in October, and bowler Shayna Ng clinched a historic women's singles world championship title in November.

'Shiok' to be back home, says Singapore's badminton world champ Loh Kean Yew
By David Lee and Deepanraj Ganesan, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2021

Badminton world champion Loh Kean Yew received a hero's welcome upon his homecoming as he enjoyed a water salute when his KL 833 flight arrived at Changi Airport Terminal 1 at around 4pm on Tuesday (Dec 21).

“I’m just glad to be back,” a chirpy Loh said as he acknowledged a group of 50 people who had gathered and applauded his return.

He told The Straits Times: “It’s good to see everyone here, hearing Singlish all around me, shiok!

“This is the first time I’ve experienced the water salute and I’m very honoured they did this for me. I hope to achieve more sporting glory for Singapore.”

The 24-year-old Singaporean delivered a surprise gold at the Badminton World Federation World Championships on Sunday when he beat India's Kidambi Srikanth 21-15, 22-20 in the men's singles final in Huelva, Spain, despite nursing an ankle injury.

Returning with national singles coach Kelvin Ho and physiotherapist Ho Jia Ying, he also celebrated his climb to a career-high world No. 15 in the latest rankings released on Tuesday.

National swimmer Joseph Schooling had received a similar reception when he returned from the Rio 2016 Olympics with the nation's first Olympic gold medal after winning the men's 100m butterfly final.

Due to Covid-19 safe management measures, there was no public reception for the shuttler. But a group of eagle-eyed onlookers and fans at Changi Airport managed to catch a glimpse of Singapore's world champion on Tuesday.

Denise, 26, who wanted to be known only by her first name, was running errands when she saw the media gathering and "sensed that someone important was arriving".

She said: "I suspected it could be Kean Yew and then realised it was definitely him because he posted on Instagram that he had landed. So I waited to see if I could catch a glimpse of him.

"He's done us all proud. Seeing the way he celebrated his win was especially moving. He's set an example for children to follow. I'm sure people of all ages who know of his achievement will feel very inspired."

After clearing a polymerase chain reaction swab test, Loh was welcomed home by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, as well as Singapore Badminton Association officials – president Lawrence Leow, chief executive officer Alan Ow, technical director Martin Andrew and other management committee members.

He then attended a press conference at the Changi Experience Studio in Jewel, where he shared all the things he missed about Singapore – his pillow and bed, hotpot and Japanese food.

He will get his injured right ankle checked on Wednesday, but was feeling fine enough to do a boomerang hop for Instagram, and will take a break from badminton for the rest of year. He heads to Dubai next month to train with Denmark’s world No. 1 and Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen.

With the exception of a four-day spell at home from Dec 4 to 7, Loh has been on the road since August to train and compete.

He had a one-month training stint with Viktor Axelsen and four other top-60 players in Dubai across August and September, before he flew to Paris to train with the France national team.

In the two months that followed, he captured the Dutch Open and Hylo Open in Germany and finished second in the Indonesia Open, before claiming his historic world title.

In the process, he scalped six of the current top 10 players – Axelsen, Japan’s Kento Momota (second), Denmark’s Anders Antonsen (third), Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien-chen (fourth), Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia (seventh), and Kidambi (10th).

But still, there are some people who have questioned the Penang native’s allegiance on social media.

Loh, who has seen his Instagram followers grow from 110,000 last month to 170,000, said: “I just laugh at it because on the Internet, everyone can say what they want. I’m just me, I’m just playing badminton.. this will never end, but I just do what I can and hope to make Singapore proud.”

There are others who have questioned why there are no monetary rewards given for Loh’s massive achievement. The World Championships and the Olympics do not offer cash prizes, although the Singapore National Olympic Council administers the Major Games Award Programme (MAP) which disburses monetary rewards for major Games like the Olympics.

Loh, who has earned over $80,000 in prize money in the past two months, said: “This is not within my control. I didn’t expect to win (the world title so soon), so money didn’t cross my mind.

“For me, it’s about playing the best I can, and hoping to perform. This time I won, so I’m just glad to put the Singapore flag into the history books and we got to hear Majulah Singapura at the World Championships.”

Making of a badminton champ: Loh Kean Yew left his home, family, school to chase his dreams
A mother's tale of how Loh became a world-beater
By Jonathan Wong and David Lee, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2021

Call it a mother's intuition. For Grace Gan, there were three moments in Loh Kean Yew's life which convinced her that her youngest son could become a successful professional badminton player.

The first was in 2009, when the Penang-born 11-year-old surprisingly won Malaysia's National Junior Grand Prix Under-12 title, beating the more-fancied Lee Zii Jia - this year's All England champion - in the final.

Housewife Gan, 57, recalled to The Straits Times: "Kelvin (Kean Yew's moniker by his parents) usually lost in the quarter- or semi-finals of these big tournaments. But that year, he surprised everyone. Suddenly, he was up there with the best in the country."

Twelve years later, her son was top of the world after he beat India's Kidambi Srikanth last Sunday in the final of the Badminton World Federation World Championship in Huelva, Spain.

It was a breakthrough by the Singaporean, ranked 22nd and unseeded in the tournament, and a result neither of his parents could imagine when they watched Kean Yew and his third brother Kean Hean as young children trade shots with the gate of their Jelutong house as the improvised net.

Their father Pin Keat, a table tennis player in his school days, was keen to expose his four sons to different sports. Kean Yew, who was five when he first picked up a badminton racket, also tried basketball, football, tennis and volleyball.

Construction site manager Pin Keat, 59, said aside from his natural athletic ability, Kean Yew possessed even at a young age an "independent streak" that set him apart. He added: "You cannot be too rigid in sports to be successful. You must be willing to take risks, try things. And he is like that, not scared of trying."

It was obvious where Kean Yew's commitment lay. Both he and Kean Hean attended a badminton academy in nearby Ayer Itam and while most kids attended sessions thrice weekly, the siblings went nine times.

Their mother was the driving force behind this, sending the brothers to train "rain or shine", Penang Badminton Association president Kah Kau Kiak recently told The Star newspaper.

Gan was also the catalyst for the next stage of Kean Yew's development. A year after Kean Hean earned a scholarship and enrolled at Montfort Secondary School here, Kean Yew secured one at the Singapore Sports School after a trial and joined his brother across the Causeway in 2010.

That decision, which came despite a similar offer from the Bukit Jalil Sports School in Kuala Lumpur, was not an easy one for the close-knit family - all four brothers grew up sharing the same room - even though Gan's elder brother Teik Huat was able to help as he was based in Singapore.

Tearing as she recounted the early days Kean Yew spent on his own at the boarding rooms, Gan said: "He would cry when talking to me on the phone as all his friends were back here.

"But I told him this was a good opportunity for him to study in Singapore. Such opportunities only come once in life. If you don't grab it, it can disappear very quickly."

His response was the second moment she recognised a steely resolve in her child, who she has not seen in the flesh in almost two years due to the pandemic. "He was very obedient and understood why we sent him there. And said he will do his best," she noted.

That was no idle promise either, as the Sports School badminton academy general manager Desmond Tan, 45, can attest.

He said: "Because he wasn't so proficient in English, he kept to himself at the beginning and was very quiet. He didn't have many friends and he wasn't used to the rigours of the education system in Singapore. So, he really had it tough at the start.

"For example, if others finished school at 2pm, he would finish at 3pm because he had to spend an extra hour with the teacher to try and bridge the gap. Apart from Chinese, he struggled in his other subjects."

The former national shuttler, who participated in the 1995 SEA Games, added: "But he exhibited grit while remaining grounded, which are qualities he exhibits even today, along with his great personality.

"And he grew to bond with his teammates, not only those from his cohort, but also his seniors, as they chased their sporting dream. Academically, he also caught up quickly to graduate in four years."

Despite his undoubted raw talent, Tan described Kean Yew the teenager as "a work in progress" who was "not a standout player when he was with us".

But he had something special. "The timing of his swing, contact point, sweet spot and racket feel were as perfect as can be already," noted Tan.

"The extraordinary part was, whether he was in control of a match or under pressure, that feel was always there. Most players have that racket feel when they are in control, and lose it when they are under pressure, but Kean Yew was different in that sense.

"The variation was also there because his racket skills were good, so he was able to execute strokes with ease even under pressure when others find difficult to pull off."

While at the Sports School, Kean Yew rose through the ranks at the Singapore Badminton Association, and obtained citizenship in 2015 before claiming a men's singles bronze at the SEA Games later in June.

The third moment of confirmation of Kean Yew's single-mindedness arrived for Gan that same year. Kean Yew was 18 and a first-year Sports and Leisure Management student at Republic Polytechnic when he told her he was going to quit school to become a full-time professional.

"I told him I sent him to Singapore to study, but now he wants to give that up to play badminton?" she said. "But I also knew everything he had sacrificed and how much he wanted to follow his passion. He was very clear this was what he wanted.

"I didn't try to change his mind because I believed he was going to give it 100 per cent."

Having seen him create history, she has been proven right. Always trust a mother's instinct.

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