Beaten Loh Kean Yew knows eyes are on him now
Despite losing to world No. 2 Axelsen in Indonesia Open final, S'porean shuttler knows recent run means opponents will scrutinise his game more
Loh Kean Yew was many things last night.
Exhausted, after an hour-long battle with world No. 2 Viktor Axelsen in the Indonesia Open final, which ended in him losing 13-21, 21-9, 13-21.
Satisfied, by his overall performance at the Bali International Convention Centre and eye-catching run to the final.
And aware, that he is no longer an unheralded player on the international scene.
After all, the 26th-ranked Singaporean had beaten several higher-ranked opponents, most notably world No.1 Kento Momota, at the US$850,000 (S$1.2m) Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour Super 1000 event.
And with the Dec 12-19 World Championships in Spain fast approaching, Loh told The Straits Times over the phone that he knows the challenges will only get tougher.
"Everyone's eyes are on it," said the 24-year-old. "And now my match is out there, everyone will start to analyse my game.
"It'll be even more difficult and I will need to up my game, mentally as well."
Going by last night's battle with Olympic champion Axelsen, he is certainly up for the challenge.
Loh, who stands at 1.75m, had trained with the 1.94m Dane in Dubai for four weeks across August and September, and he appeared unfazed standing across the court from him as a rival.
He held his own in the early exchanges and was level at 6-6 in the first frame, but then faded before losing. But Loh soon rediscovered his verve and stormed back to take the second game.
In the decider, Axelsen, 27, started more aggressively and built up a 15-8 lead after a long rally, eventually closing out the match.
Still smarting over some shots he felt were gambles that did not pay off, Loh said: "I should have been more patient and kept some rallies going instead of trying to kill him... Against Viktor, it's risky."
The loss ended his hopes of becoming the first male Singaporean player to qualify for the season-ending BWF Tour Finals which takes place this week also in Bali. A win would have seen him take the place of Thai world No. 22 Kunlavut Vitidsarn.
Singapore will be represented though, with Yeo Jia Min earning a spot in the women's singles.
Still, Loh's run in Bali is the best performance by a Singaporean male shuttler since Ronald Susilo's singles win at the Japan Open in 2004. That was a Super 750 event, a rung lower than the Indonesia Open, after the BWF's tournament tiers were introduced in 2018.
Following his training stint with Axelsen in Dubai, Loh has found new levels to his game.
Last night's final was the third time he was in the final two in the past two months. He won the Super 100 Dutch Open in October and Super 500 Hylo Open earlier this month.
During that span, he has claimed numerous scalps. Besides Momota, Loh has beaten Taiwan's world No. 4 Chou Tien-chen and Malaysia's All England champion Lee Zii Jia (No. 7).
Preparations before such big games have played a key role, said Loh. "Before games, the whole day I was in my room, fighting my own battle mentally... in order to perform. That was the toughest part."
Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) president Lawrence Leow hailed Loh and compatriot Yeo for their performances at the Indonesia Open.
While Yeo, 22, was eliminated in the second round of the women's singles, she earned a place at the Tour Finals, becoming the first Singaporean to do so.
"The recent successes of Kean Yew and Jia Min are not a coincidence," said Leow.
"This is a culmination of a robust business continuity plan at SBA that made sure the development of our elite athletes remains on an upward trajectory despite restrictions on international competitions and overseas training camps, and resources.
"We identified the players' needs, considered our resources, deliberated on our options, and made good decisions in a specially curated training programme."