Sunday, May 28, 2017
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR & GAYLE ALLEYNE | BADMINTONPHOTO
Korea sensationally snapped China’s 14-year vice-grip on the Sudirman Cup, coming from behind twice today to shock the ten-time champions in a 3-2 upset in the finale of the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017.
Before an increasingly boisterous crowd in Gold Coast, Australia, the underdogs – packed with young and relatively inexperienced players – produced a courageous, soul-stirring revival of Korean badminton less than a year after the powerhouse limped out of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with one bronze to its name.
What an amazing result for Kang Kyung Jin mere months after assuming the mantle of head coach of a squad depleted by the exodus of its core of star athletes from the international scene late last year. The sight of this father-figure storming centre court and bear-hugging his young warriors was truly a tear-jerker.
“Before the event we were asked about our Men’s Doubles players, and we were called a weak team,” said Kang. “We tried to build our team spirit. We were in it together, and we believed we could do it.”
The bare facts first: Korea won the World Mixed Team Championships for the first time since 2003 – their fourth title overall. China were on a streak of six straight victories; with ten titles overall and an assembly line of world-class stars. They were red-hot favourites to add an eleventh title.
Few – if any – gave Korea a chance of topping the podium on Sunday.
“A miracle,” Kang had declared after his side made the final yesterday.
In terms of emotion, it was an achievement he compared to getting married and having his first child. That his team would surpass China in such dramatic fashion was perhaps something that even he dared not consider.
Korea staged rear-guard recoveries both times they were down. As the tie entered the fifth match – the Mixed Doubles – China seemed to have the upper-hand, with Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong – winners of four events this season – facing Choi Solgyu and Chae Yoo Jung.
However, it was Choi and Chae who were unfazed and inspired. The Koreans barely did a thing wrong. After losing a close first game, the Chinese started to falter – with even the normally composed Huang making elementary mistakes and being outplayed by the sharp Chae at net. Choi kept soaring high, converting half-chances with blistering smashes and leaving the Chinese ashen-faced with every point lost. The winner came on the 51st minute – 21-17 21-13. A jubilant Korean team stormed the court and Chae and Choi were buried under a heap of bodies.
“I was nervous,” admitted Chae, who was actually the steadiest player on court. “We hadn’t played well earlier, but it was the last match, and I thought there was nothing to lose. I was thankful to my team-mates for keeping us in the tie and taking it to the last match.”
None of this drama appeared likely with the tie beginning as expected: China held all the aces in the opening Men’s Doubles encounter between Fu Haifeng/Zhang Nan and their Korean challengers Choi Solgyu/Seo Seung Jae.
The Chinese were always assured of victory with Fu’s bludgeoning smash at their disposal. Korea had nothing in their arsenal with which to hurt the Olympic champions. Fu and Zhang, the tandem that has delivered so frequently for China on the biggest stages, once again combined with instinctual precision that left no room for Korea to manoeuvre. China grabbed the lead in 42 minutes: 21-14 21-15.
Sung Ji Hyun had been Korea’s solitary flag-bearer in Women’s Singles this tournament, but if the exertions had weighed her down, she didn’t allow them to affect her against He Bingjiao. The Korean, relying upon the steady game for which she is known, barely made a mistake in spinning a web around her opponent. The Chinese was made to run endlessly, and when she attempted to inject pace, the Korean’s exemplary footwork was well in place as she calmly returned the shuttle to prolong the rallies.
It was smooth sailing for Sung until a brief spell in the second game saw some jittery play. He Bingjiao inched to within four points of her rival, but a slice of luck saw Sung to match point, and she closed it out: 21-12 21-16.
Against a lesser player than Chen Long, Jeon Hyeok Jin might have come away a winner in the Men’s Singles. The Korean did everything right. Unruffled by the enormity of the challenge, he showed courage and his game was on target – tight net shots; judicious attack; no hesitation in taking Chen on in the rallies.
Chen is the Olympic champion though and made of a different steel – and nothing that Jeon threw his way could rattle him. Always a split-second ahead, there was an assured calmness about him that left no room for an upset. His vicious smashes homing in on the lines; his footwork always in place no matter the power or angle at which Jeon smashed, Chen gave nothing away. Jeon fought gamely, and though defeated 21-10 21-10, he did not come away disgraced.
Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan had delivered the semi-final tie for China against Japan with a power-packed performance against Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi. Korea’s Chang Ye Na and Lee So Hee, however, delivered a masterclass in countering the aggressive Chinese. Defending astutely and dragging their opponents into long rallies, the All England champions sniped off points. Having lost a close first game, the frustrated Chen and Jia fell apart and the Koreans surged home, 21-19 21-13.
Now, it was up to Choi and Chae to carry the flag.
Fifty-one absorbing minutes later, what had seemed almost impossible transformed into concrete reality: Korea – champions of the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017!