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S’pore badminton players handed tough draws at Malaysian Open

The year-end feasting and festivities are over and Singapore’s badminton players will head into their 2023 opener at the Jan 10-15 Malaysian Open ready to build on their successes last season.

But their first outing of the year in Kuala Lumpur will be a challenging one, with the players receiving tough draws in the Super 1000 tournament, which carries a prize purse of US$1.25 million (S$1.67 million).

In the men’s singles, world No. 6 Loh Kean Yew will meet China’s Li Shifeng in the first round and could face Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn – who beat him twice in 2022 in the SEA Games singles final and last eight of the World Championships – in the quarter-finals.

India’s 2022 Commonwealth Games champion Lakshya Sen and Malaysian star Lee Zii Jia are also in the same half of the draw.

But former world champion Loh is not worried, saying: “I’m focusing one match at a time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to perform well.”

While he did not win any titles last season, he became the first Singaporean male player to rise to No. 3 in the world rankings and qualify for the prestigious Badminton World Federation World Tour Finals.

With qualification for the 2024 Olympics starting in May, Loh, 25, also has his sights set on making it to the Paris Games.

Loh said: “To get ranking points for seedings and eventually Olympic qualification, means that every tournament is important. It is yet another hectic year, and I will need to adapt and adjust to the badminton and sporting calendar.”

Also facing tough opposition at the Malaysian Open is compatriot and world No. 34 Yeo Jia Min, who will meet Thailand’s SEA Games champion Pornpawee Chochuwong in the opening round of the women’s singles. If she progresses, she could next meet former world champions P.V. Sindhu (India) or Spain’s Carolina Marin.

In the women’s doubles, Singaporean pair Crystal Wong and Jin Yujia will play Scotland’s Julie MacPherson and Ciara Torrance in the first round.

Mixed doubles pair Terry Hee and Jessica Tan, who won a historic Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2022, open their campaign against Germany’s Jones Ralfy Jansen and Linda Efler.

But the pair, who rose to a career-high 13th at the end of 2022, could find themselves up against Thai world champions Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai in the next round.

Tan, 29, said: “We didn’t really set any particular goals, each win is a breakthrough and each loss is learning experience for us.

“It’s always harder when you’re not a seeded pair, but the first match will be tough as well against the Germans.”

After a year of milestones, the couple are aiming for more.

Hee, 27, said: “We hope to continue with good performances, and hope to be more consistent. Quota for doubles (at the Olympics) is little as compared to singles, so we really need to work hard for it.”

A total of 70 quota places – 35 for each gender – will be awarded for the singles events, while 48 pairs will qualify for the doubles (16 each for the men’s, women’s and mixed).

Singapore Badminton Association technical director Martin Andrew said that the team have worked hard to improve during the pre-season. Noting that the next three months are crucial with Olympic qualification coming up, he said: “They are all fine and feeling positive. It’s the start of a series of tournaments, so it needs to be kept in perspective.

“They have had a good training block where we’ve been able to get rid of some niggly injuries. So they are ready, albeit with not much actual match play in their preparations.”