Local shuttlers eyeing home run at Singapore Open
When the Singapore Badminton Open was last held in 2019, the local players had to battle through qualifiers just to make it to the main draw.
But just like how the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head, the top Singaporean shuttlers have stepped up to take the badminton world by storm.
Loh Kean Yew had made just one Singapore Open main-draw appearance in 2018, but returns as world champion, alongside Yeo Jia Min, mixed doubles pair Terry Hee and Jessica Tan, men's doubles duo Loh Kean Hean and Hee, who have all made considerable breakthroughs in the past year.
While none of them have made it past the second round of this event yet, they are no longer cannon fodder, but true contenders at the US$370,000 (S$520,000) event at the Singapore Indoor Stadium from July 12 to 17.
At the pre-tournament press conference held at the Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay, world No. 9 Loh said becoming the first Singaporean men's singles champion since Wee Choon Seng in 1962 "would mean a lot" but preferred to focus on his first-round clash against Frenchman Brice Leverdez.
In addition to home-ground advantages such as sleeping on his own bed and having someone deal with his laundry, he added: "It is always a good feeling to play in front of a home crowd. We have family coming to watch, and we get to take pictures with local fans. Everything is more familiar, and it just feels different from staying in a hotel when we are overseas."
While the pandemic had wreaked havoc on global sports scheduling, with the BWF Tour largely suspended for more than a year from March 2020, it has also been a great leveller from which the Singaporean players have capitalised on.
While playing opportunities were at a premium, women's singles world No. 19 Yeo shared that it was a good period of self-reflection and self-improvement in which they could work on the finer details of their game. Personally, following numerous 10km runs, she also shed 2kg and has become more toned.
She added: "It was a good block of reflecting trying out things and then bringing up certain areas of our game and being more consistent. At the end of the year, I was very happy that the hard work paid off, and hopefully we can do the same this year."
A by-product of their success has been a surge in rankings which has also helped them become a fixture in the main draws of higher-ranked events.
However, this can also be a double-edged sword. Some international players wary of burnout have decided to withdraw from the Singapore Open after the Asean swing's four events in Indonesia and Malaysia. These include Olympic men's and women's singles champions Viktor Axelsen and Chen Yufei respectively.
Hee, a veteran of eight Singapore Opens since 2014 and winner of three mixed doubles finals with Jessica Tan and two men's doubles titles with Loh Kean Hean in the past year, agreed the badminton calendar is "very packed", but felt it is a "happy problem".
He said: "We haven't been competing for so long due to the pandemic, so we are more hungry to play and perform in every match. The situation is the same for everyone, so we cannot complain. We can only discuss with our coaches to see what is best for us and plan smartly.
"For me, the Singapore Open will always be the most special tournament to me, because I always feel like I play better with the home crowd cheering for me.
With the July 28-Aug 8 Commonwealth Games also on the horizon, Tan felt that the Singapore Open would also be key in their preparation for the major meet.
She said: "Our performance will kind of determine how we enter the Games. We hope to focus more on the process and performance... pay attention to the smaller details that we have been working on and better ourselves after every match."