A cursory glance at the result of last Sunday’s women’s singles final of the French Open World Tour Super 750 badminton championships would have forced the aficionado of the shuttle sport to take an incredulous second look. It read: An Se Young (South Korea) beat Carolina Marin (Spain) 16-21, 21-18, 21-5 in 69 minutes.
In other words, a precocious 17-year-old Korean schoolgirl, occupying the 16th spot on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, had administered an almost unbelievable thumping in the third and deciding game to a tough, experienced campaigner who has won the World Championship thrice in the past (in 2014, 2015 and 2018) and is the reigning Olympic gold medallist. The first two games were closely contested, but the decider was a wash-out.
Those aware of Marin’s recent history would have been tempted to conclude that the Spaniard may have pulled up injured in the decider, or refrained from going all out to avoid aggravating an old injury. After all, she had only recently returned to the world circuit from a seven-month rehabilitation period, after undergoing reconstruction on a right knee twisted badly during the Indonesia Open final against India’s Saina Nehwal, on 27 January this year.
However, Marin’s long-time coach, Fernando Rivas, confirmed to the media that his ward had not suffered any injury issue, but had simply run out of ideas and steam due to insufficient physical fitness after her lengthy sojourn on the sidelines and lack of the finer edge in match fitness.
The steady stream of shuttles coming back from the other side of the court as a riposte to some of the Spaniard’s best strokes had finally broken her mental resolve; and she had allowed a string of unforced errors to dominate most of the deciding game, when the Korean had taken a huge initial leap to 8-3, and then powered to 20-3 before closing the match out.
Rivas’ sober admission must be considered the biggest feather in in the cap of the raging new talent in the shuttle firmament — of far greater value than the paycheck of $52,500 that the unseeded Korean teenager received for the biggest payday of her fledgling career, or the 11,000 points she pocketed for her efforts in Paris, including knocking out second-seeded Akane Yamaguchi and eighth-seeded Nehwal on her way to the finals.
The points, incidentally, have catapulted her to the 11th spot in the BWF rankings for the ongoing week; and it is really hard to realise that she started 2019 by only just being inside the top 100 in the world — in the 99th slot in the rankings.
In a matter of a little over nine months, Se Young has won four World Tour titles, including an elite Super 750 (French Open, at the expense of Marin in the final), a Super 300 (New Zealand Open, beating Li Xuerui of China) and two Super 100 (Canada Open and Akita Masters, beating Wang Zhiyi of China and Haruko Suzuki of Japan, respectively) events. She was also runner-up to Yeo Jin Min of Singapore at the Hyderabad Masters Super 100, losing the deciding game narrowly at 19-21.
Born in Gwangju in February 2002, Se Young gained the distinction of being the first middle-school student to qualify for South Korea’s national women’s badminton team. In 2018, when she was barely 16, she became the first Korean junior high-schooler to be inducted into the country’s Uber Cup squad, apart from being part of the national junior team that clinched the mixed team title at the 2017 Asian Junior Championships.
“I am proud to have represented my country in the 2018 Uber Cup at Bangkok, and to have helped my team win the bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games,” Se Young is reported to have told the Korean national news agency after the bronze medal victory in Jakarta. “It was wonderful to wear the colours of the country alongside players like Sung Ji Hyun, Bae Yeon-ju and Lee Jang-mi. I have idolised Ji Hyun since my pre-teen days.”
And to think that Se Young still has two years to win the World Junior Championship, which five of the current top ten women have bagged in the course of the last dozen years — Nehwal in 2008; Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand thrice, in 2009, 2010 and 2011; Nozomi Okuhara of Japan in 2012; Yamaguchi of Japan twice, in 2013 and 2014; and Chen Yufei of China in 2016.
On current form, the 17-year-old has every opportunity of winning the next World Championship, but she will not be able to displace Thailand’s Intanon from the pedestal of being the youngest world champion. The Thai girl, at the age of 18 years and 192 days, had downed the then reigning World No 1 and London Olympics gold medallist, Li Xuerui of China, in three pulsating games, at 21-14 in the decider.
The problem for Se Young is that no World Championship is played in an Olympic year, i.e. Tokyo 2020. The earliest that the Korean can win a World Championship would be in August 2021, when she would be 19 years and six months old, a full year older than Intanon was when she amazed the badminton world by beating Xuerui in the latter’s own den in Guangzhou.
The equally amazing coincidence is that the two shuttlers were born on the same day — 5 February — seven years apart. Whereas the 1995-born Intanon is today a veteran of the circuit at the age of 24, the 2002-born Se Young has become a real thorn in the side of the top women on the circuit.
The Korean boasts recent victories over erstwhile World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei (in three games at the Sudirman Cup team event in May this year), Japan’s World No 4 Yamaguchi (in straight games in the just-concluded French Open), and sixth-ranked PV Sindhu (in straight games at the Denmark Open, ten days ago).
Others in the top ten in the BWF rankings to fall to the Korean are eighth-ranked Michelle Li of Canada (in three games at the Canada Open in July this year, with a 21-3 demolition job in the decider!), World No 9 Nehwal (in two extended games at the French Open last week) and tenth-ranked Marin (that 21-5 final-game scoreline is still fresh in memory).
Among the top ten, Se Young is yet to bump into the freshly installed World No 1 and 2017 world champion, Okuhara of Japan, and the seventh-ranked He Bingjiao of China. She has lost once to the fifth-ranked Intanon (at 15-21, 17-21, in the Sudirman Cup earlier this year), and has found China’s sprightly World No 3, Chen Yufei, a really tough nut to crack (three straight losses, including two this year alone). These are the only women higher than the Korean in the rankings at the moment.
Comparisons of the teenager’s playing style with that of the one who remains the youngest player ever to win the World Championship, Intanon of Thailand, become inevitable.
The two players, it must be emphasised, have vastly differing styles and strengths, with the 24-year-old Thai being a wonderfully deceptive player with a vast array of eye-filling strokes and strong temperament, but relatively lacking in staying power.
The 5’ 7” tall Korean, on the other hand, appears indefatigable, is swift and decisive with her footwork, has a virtually impregnable defence, and an arsenal of accurate strokes. But she lacks a ‘killer’ stroke and physical strength behind her smash, and is susceptible to late, deceptive shots.
Se Young has also found the wiles of Yufei hard to comprehend — though she came fairly close to toppling the 21-year-old Chinese ace at the China Open in September this year, succumbing in three games by a 22-20, 17-21, 15-21 scoreline. The ankle injury to Yufei (a repeat of the injury that had first occurred at the 2018 World Tour finals in Guangzhou) at the Denmark Open could mean that Se Young will have the edge in footspeed when the Chinese ace returns to competition, and the two clash.
The Korean teen’s first major objective is to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A distressing leg injury to compatriot Ji Hyun in September this year has unwittingly smoothened the way for Se Young’s qualification as her country’s No 1 women’s singles player.
No doubt, in ten months from now, she will be even stronger, both mentally and physically, as her body fills out by the end of the teen years. Unless she gets an unfavourable draw, An Se Young is bound to be a red-hot contender for a medal. If she can manoeuvre her way to the top step of the victory rostrum, she will gain the accolade of being the youngest-ever Olympic badminton singles gold medallist.
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Updated Date: Oct 30, 2019 18:53:06 IST