Loh Kean Yew moves to career-high 20th in rankings, Yeo Jia Min is 17th
SINGAPORE - As much as Loh Kean Yew loved being an underdog, he is ready to shed that tag and embrace his new status as championship contender.
In the latest Badminton World Federation rankings released on Tuesday (Nov 30), the 22-year-old Singaporean improved to a career-high 20th, representing a remarkable rise from being 41st just seven weeks ago.
During this period, he won the lower-tier Dutch Open and the BWF World Tour Super 500 Hylo Open in Germany, and reached the final of the Super 1000 Indonesia Open last week. He also demonstrated his giant-slaying abilities by beating six players in the top 20, including then-world No. 1 Kento Momota of Japan.
Loh told The Straits Times: "When I was the underdog, there were few expectations and I was upsetting opponents. Now, they are aware of me and they are going to come after me and analyse me up, down, left, right and centre.
"It won't be easy handling this pressure, but it is a challenge I need to face and get used to, to get to the top."
After he was knocked out of the Tokyo Olympics at the group stage in July, Loh had set himself intermediate targets of making the top 30, 20 and 10 en route to the ultimate goal of winning a medal at Paris 2024.
And while he is confident about his talent, even he is surprised at his recent surge.
"I know I'm capable of beating anyone, but I'm not consistent enough," said Loh. "That's why I didn't expect to make the top 20 so soon, I thought, 'Maybe I will be there in the first half of next year'. But of course, I'm happy about making such good progress and showing more consistency.
"Now, the next step is to make the top 15 because narrowing the gap from here won't be easy."
The world ranking includes up to 10 tournaments with the highest points earned over the last 52 weeks of competition. Higher-ranked players get invited to the top events on the tour that carry more ranking points and prize money. For example, a Super 1000 event assures the 16 first-round losers 3,000 points and US$850 (S$1,165).
Loh explained how a higher ranking would benefit him, saying: "Being in the top 20 reduces the uncertainty in planning. Previously, I would sometimes be the first or second reserve and not be sent for those overseas competitions as a reserve, only to find out later on that someone had pulled out at the last minute but it was too late for me to go. Those are always frustrating.
"I should also be able to be seeded for the Super 300 and 100 tournaments, which allows me to avoid other seeded players and increases my chances of progressing further."
Loh's string of eye-catching performances has led to a spike in his following on Instagram from around 50,000 pre-Olympics to more than 128,000 now. In these last two months, he has also made more than $80,000 in prize money pre-tax.
He said: "I'm thankful for all the support and I'm sorry I cannot respond to every message like I used to. I haven't thought much about how to spend the money, but I will save most of it to buy an apartment in the future."
While he is bummed at missing out on this week's US$1.5 million BWF World Tour Finals in Bali, where even first-round losers will take home a minimum of US$9,000, Loh has the week off competition to take stock of his progress and what he needs to do to improve ahead of the Dec 12-19 World Championships in Spain.
To the point like his ferocious smashes, he said: "Fitness and patience.
"Against Viktor Axelsen (in the Indonesia Open final), I was trying to kill him but I could not, and I could feel my legs were heavy. I will definitely step up my court fitness regimen after this season.
"As for the World Championships, I will take it match by match and try to go as far as I can. Everybody will be up for it there."
Meanwhile, compatriot Yeo Jia Min also improved to a career-high 17th in the women's singles rankings.
The 22-year-old is looking forward to her debut as the first Singaporean to play in the Tour Finals after being drawn into Group B with Japan's world No. 3 Akane Yamaguchi, South Korea's sixth-ranked An Se-young and Thailand's world No. 12 Busanan Ongbamrungphan.
Despite being ranked lower than them, Yeo recorded wins against all three in 2019.
Group A comprises India's P. V. Sindhu (seventh), Thailand's Pornpawee Chochuwong (10th), Germany's Yvonne Li (24th) and Denmark's Line Christophersen (27th).
The World Tour Finals at the Bali International Convention Centre is the tour's season-ending tournament featuring the eight best singles and doubles performers in the calendar year.