Loh Kean Yew goes from underdog to badminton world champ
Badminton player Loh Kean Yew's favourite shot sees him striding to the net, holding out his racket to look like he is going for a simple drop shot, only to flick his wrist at the last moment to deftly send the shuttlecock diagonally across the net.
"Can bluff people and make them go the wrong way, quite shiok," said the Singaporean world No. 22 cheekily.
In the past few months, the 24-year-old has made a habit of producing the unexpected, like last night, when he upset Indian world No. 14 Srikanth Kidambi to become world champion, Singapore's first in the sport.
Last Monday, he shocked Denmark's world No. 1 and Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen in the opening round of the event.
His hot form began in October, when he won the lower-tier Dutch Open as the world No. 41, beating India's 25th-ranked Lakshya Sen in the final. The following month, he beat Taiwanese world No. 4 Chou Tien-chen and then Malaysia's world No. 7 and All England champion Lee Zii Jia en route to winning the Badminton World Federation World Tour Super 500 Hylo Open in Germany.
"I like being the underdog. Not many people are aware of you, there's less expectation and, hence, less pressure for me to upset the favourites," said Loh.
Less than three weeks later, he stunned Japan's then world No. 1 Kento Momota in the first round of the Super 1000 Indonesia Open and went all the way to the final before losing to Axelsen.
Super 1000 events are second to only the World Tour Finals in terms of prize money on the World Tour, while the Super 500 is the fourth tier, and Loh is the first Singaporean to go so far at both levels. Yet, he is as modest as he is honest.
On taking Axelsen's scalp, he says: "I believe I can give any player a tough fight, but I don't think I'm so good yet."
Ahead of him in the world rankings are more than 20 players, and he is not where he wants to be yet, which is in the top 10 and standing on the Olympic podium.
However, his success has brought further obstacles as more illustrious opponents are now wary of him, while lower-ranked players are keen to beat badminton's latest rising star.
Loh, whose Instagram followers have doubled to 150,000, said: "I know it comes with the territory. This is something I wanted, so I have to be ready for it.
"While I'm happy with the string of good results because it shows that I have managed to add consistency to my game this year, I know I still have to improve on my court fitness and continue working hard on different elements and sharpen physically and mentally if I want to keep winning tournaments.
"Even as I become a higher-ranked favourite in some matches, I aim to justify that tag and continue to do Singapore proud."