Loh Kean Yew - passion took him to the top, but pressure can take its toll, Latest Others News - The New Paper

Loh Kean Yew - passion took him to the top, but pressure can take its toll

Singapore badminton champ Loh Kean Yew recently sat down for an interview with TheHomeGround Asia editor Judith Tan, and this is her report.

His passion for gold drove Singapore shuttler Loh Kean Yew to the pinnacle of his sport. He won the World Championship in December 2021, becoming the first Singaporean to clinch the title. It elevated his status from underdog to “the man to beat” on the World Tour.

“There’s always pressure but it comes and goes, not only for me. Looking on from a positive point of view, it is a good thing that everyone is targeting you and watching your every move. It’s how we manage and grow our gameplay,” the 25-year-old tells TheHomeGround Asia.

Unseeded at that tournament, Loh stunned the likes of world number one Viktor Axelsen and world number three Anders Antonsen before beating India’s Kidambi Srikanth in a nail-biting finish to take the crown.

The victory marked the best finish for a Singaporean in any edition of the World Championships.

Loh grew up watching Chinese two-time Olympic champion and five-time World champion Lin Dan and Malaysian Olympian Lee Chong Wei, who ranked first worldwide for 349 weeks from Aug 21, 2008, to June 14, 2012. And then Loh himself became the champion on the same world stage. And this was despite having rolled his ankle during the quarter-final while trying to save a shuttle.

“I was super happy and busy celebrating the win. It felt like a dream playing in the World Badminton Championship and making a lifelong dream come true,” he says. And this “lifelong dream” took 43 hectic minutes, two games and 78 points to reach.

From backyard badminton to world stage

Loh was only four when he started playing badminton with his brothers and neighbours in Penang, where he lived. 

“I started because I thought that it was fun. But I stopped because I was bullied,” he says. And since he had always hero-worshipped older brother Kean Hean and would try to emulate him in whatever he did, he started picking up the racquet again at nine.

“All along I’ve always looked up to my brother Kean Hean and I followed whatever he did. He played badminton so I also wanted to play badminton. I wanted to be as good as him, if not better. That’s the competitive streak in me,” Loh says.

“I started official training when I was 10 then gradually … the passion just grew,” he says, adding that he was in the state team in Penang. Loh came to Singapore with Kean Hean, now a national shuttler, to help him warm-up for the trials to gain admission into the Badminton Academy at the Singapore Sports School. And that’s when he was spotted by its general manager Desmond Tan. 

According to the Singapore Sports School website, the 10 minutes during the warm-up with his older brother was time enough for Mr Tan to notice his “innate talent in badminton”. So, Mr Tan approached the then 12-year-old Loh’s mother to have him attend the badminton trials, where he “was outstanding”. Loh was offered a scholarship and was immediately accepted to the programme.

“Also, my parents had wanted me to study and play badminton at the same time, so they wanted a balance of education and sports. That’s why I’m here,” Loh says.

Knowing how talented he is, Loh’s coaches made sure they took care of and guided him in the sport.

“And whenever I made bad decisions, they would guide me along and advise me on how to be a good player. They would tell me how top players actually approach things. For example, they ensured that I was disciplined and didn’t allow me to be tardy... And whenever I was late, I would be punished, and then I learnt from that,” he says. 

Loh says that although he changed coaches along the way, he sometimes still contacts the previous ones, seeking their expertise. And they are usually generous with their time as “they always want me to improve like I always want to improve myself”. 

Giving up academia for badminton

Loh’s first major tournament was at the 2015 SEA Games, held in Singapore. It was the first time he experienced what a major competition felt like, and with homeground support he played well enough to get into the semi-finals. He was then 18.

That year, he got his Singapore citizenship “so I could finally represent Singapore. … I was finally excited to play in front of a home crowd”. In his first outing Loh got a bronze medal in the men’s singles.

It was also that year that Loh told his parents he wanted to give up his studies for badminton.

“My parents wanted me to study and play sports at the same time, so they wanted me to go to the polytechnic and then to university after that, do both at the same time. … So it struck me that it’s very hard to focus on both. That affects my training, and also my studies. In the end I decided that I needed to give up one so I chose sports over studies,” Loh says. 

“Definitely, it was a gamble. My parents didn’t really agree to it at first but I explained to them that I didn’t want any regrets or ‘what ifs’. I told them I would try my best and give my all because sports don’t really wait for anyone, while studies you can always go back to later. They eventually understood and allowed me to give up my studies.”

It was a decision that Loh never looked back on as he moved from win to win. In 2019, his biggest dream came true when he beat childhood idol Lin Dan. After having eliminated four shuttlers from China to qualify for the final of the US$150,000 (S$204,000) Princess Sirivannavari Thailand Masters in Bangkok, Loh faced Lin, beating the Chinese badminton legend and world No. 13. Loh was ranked 129 then.

In his post-match comments, Loh told the on-court interviewer: “It is really an honour to play with him (Lin).”

Staying at the top: Why it is harder than getting there

After placing 18th in the Race to Tokyo men’s singles rankings, Loh qualified for the 2020 Summer Olympics but was eliminated in the group stage in July 2021 when he lost to seventh seed Jonatan Christie of Indonesia in a closely-contested rubber game.

In the Dutch Open in October that year, Loh won the tournament by prevailing in the finals over the top seed, India’s Lakshya Sen. It was Loh’s first tournament victory since 2019. Also in October at the French Open, he beat Malaysian Lee Zii Jia but lost to Lakshya Sen.

Loh’s coach Kelvin Ho said it “was not the first time Kean Yew had let comments on social media or his own expectations get to him”, stating that he told Loh his “mentality wasn’t right” and reminding him to focus on “processes and routines” instead of “what the final result should be”. 

Learning his lesson, Loh stayed away from social media at the next few major meets, including a social media blackout during the BWF World Championships later that year. Unseeded, Loh beat Srikanth to take the crown. 

“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,” he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

Loh tells TheHomeGround Asia: “I’m thankful for all the fans around the world, specifically South-east Asia. I’m quite glad that there are many supporters behind me, which actually motivates me a lot to play better, to become a better person on and off the court.”

Loh has not managed to repeat the podium-topping feat since.

Achieving excellence and staying on top needs intense effort and a set of enabling characteristics that get you to the top and there are always younger players who are stronger and faster, have better training, and higher expectations knocking on the door looking to take your place. 

Loh was toppled both at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the Badminton World Championships. He was beaten by Malaysia’s Ng Tze Yong in the quarter-finals in Birmingham and ended his reign as world champion on Aug 26 when he lost to a familiar nemesis in the men’s singles quarter-finals – Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn. It was Kunlavut who defeated him at the SEA Games finals in May, leaving him with a silver. 

Both times Loh said he gave his all and the losses did not dampen his dreams. He has not given up his hope to play in the Paris Olympics in 2024.

“I have no regrets because I gave everything on the court,” he said after his loss. “(Kunlavut) was more ready for the third game to control the pace, and that’s something I need to work on. … Overall, I have been playing the best I can. I think I did okay, I’m satisfied with my performance, but definitely there’s a lot more to improve on,” he added.

“I usually prepare match for match, so I always focus on the next match and not think about the future games,” he told TheHomeGround Asia before playing at the BWC. 

And to champions in the making, he says: “Dare to dream and dare to go for it. Don’t give up. You only fail when you stop trying. … It’s a dream because it’s a goal that is technically impossible to achieve. We must dream and we will go past our limit and try our best. Once we achieve it, then we can always set new goals and work towards those new dreams.”

badmintonLoh Kean Yew