WORLDS 2006 – Korea still banking on men’s doubles in Madrid

With competitors ranked in the top 5 in the world in four of five disciplines going into this year’s World Championships in Madrid, Korea had high hopes of improving on […]

With competitors ranked in the top 5 in the world in four of five disciplines going into this year’s in Madrid, Korea had high hopes of improving on last year’s performance in Anaheim, where they managed only a single bronze medal.

Story by Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent.

According to Head Kim Joong Soo, who gave Badzine an exclusive interview at the national training centre in Seoul, the best chance for a medal in Madrid is their #2 seed men’s doubles pairing of and . With the injured Lee Hyo Jung forced to withdraw from mixed and women’s doubles, the next best prospect will be All England runner-up Lee Hyun Il in men’s singles.

Having just moved up in the world rankings to the No. 2 spot for the first time, Jung Jae Sung and Lee Yong Dae are poised to show the world that Korea is still a doubles powerhouse.  They have been playing together only since the beginning of this year and already boast two 3-star tournament wins. Coach Kim says that Lee Yong Dae, who celebrated his 18th birthday on the very day he spoke to Badzine, is one of Korea’s biggest hopes for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. His pairing with Jung Jae Sung was a decision made for the long-term and they expect the two to play together for six years.

Image

Lee Yong Dae: A future Park Joo Bong?

While some have raised the issue of the age gap between the two partners, the six-year difference is not that unusual in international doubles. Reigning world champions Tony Gunawan and Howard Bach are 4 years apart and world #5 Chan and Koo are 5 years apart. In fact, the former top Thai pair, Panvisvas and Teerawiwatana were 11 years apart in age.

Lee Yong Dae is actually from Coach Kim’s hometown of Hwasun in South Jeolla Province. Kim admits with a smile that he was instrumental in the “pickup”, 3 years ago when Lee was in middle school. When four of Korea’s top doubles players retired from international competition after the 2004 Olympics, Lee, then only 16, was one of the youngest players recruited for the senior national team.

After Lee, who also plays mixed doubles with Hwang Yu Mi, turned in a double gold medal performance at the Thailand Open in July, some in the Korean press began to dub him Park Joo Bong II. Lee looks uncomfortable at the mention of this epithet, however, and insists that he has a lot to learn from his teammates and coaches and will try to make them proud.

Jung Jae Sung is now the “elder brother”

Jung Jae Sung is from North Jeolla Province and attended the same high school as Park Joo Bong and Ha Tae Kwun. He definitely seems the more talkative of the pair and it is important for him to exude confidence on this team. Jung, whose 24th birthday fell during the recent Korea Open on the day that he and Lee lost in the quarter-finals, is now the oldest men’s doubles player on the Korean national team.

Jung didn’t start playing major international tournaments consistently until late 2004 when Korea’s previous generation of men’s doubles legends retired in the wake of their success in the Athens Olympics. However, he and Lee Jae Jin won the nationals in 2003 and 2004, beating the Olympic silver and gold medallists in those respective years. They made their first major impact on the international scene when they reached the semi-finals of the 2005 Korea Open, handily defeating the world’s number one pair along the way.

Jung says of that tournament, “At that time, Jae Jin and I didn’t know what experience meant. We knew we had to play well because we were the home team but we were there to learn more than anything.” A year and a half later, it seems as if his age must be something he hears about a lot. The first thing he mentions when asked about his role as the senior doubles player is that “It feels different now when I smash. I don’t get quite as high. When I was younger, I could smash and a lot of opponents just wouldn’t be able to handle it. Now, when I smash, the shuttle always seems to come back!”


Kim : “I fear mostly Lee and Choong”

Referring to the draw for the World Championships, Coach Kim said that the most difficult opponents for his pair were Choong Tan Fook and Lee Wan Wah.

“They are very experienced and they are very good at managing the game,” Kim said and added “Lee and Jung beat them in Thailand but that was after two tough losses in the All England and the Malaysia Open.”

Accordingly, Kim views the possible semi-final matchup with the Malaysian veterans as the key match for his players. However, he is quick to point out that the probable 3rd round meeting with 2003 champions Paaske and Rasmussen of Denmark is not to be taken lightly. He says that they will be taking every match from the round of 16 onward very seriously.

Jung Jae Sung echoed his coach’s concerns. He says that he’s played against both Paaske and Rasmussen before but never when they were playing together in their championship-winning combination. Jung and Lee would prefer to meet the Malaysians in the semi-finals, though, instead of the more worrying alternative. Jung points out that he and Lee were a very new partnership when Lee and Choong trounced them at the All England. He says that the Malaysians’ age means that there is a chance that they will run out of steam.

Jung and Lee are more wary of Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan, who ousted the Koreans from their home tournament last month. Kido and Setiawan could be their semi-final opponents if the Indonesians can defeat Lee and Choong as they did at the recent Hong Kong Open. “They may not be tall, but they are powerful and they play a constant, attacking game. It is very difficult to handle,” Jung said of the young Indonesian pair.

Another factor could be Coach Tan Kim Her. “Coach Tan knows all the Malaysian pairs so well and he tells us what their strong points are and what kind of strategy they are likely to use. It is very helpful.” When asked whether Tan’s experience coaching mostly the younger Malaysian players was useful in facing veterans Lee and Choong, Jung pointed out that “when he was still a player, he used to play with those guys so he possibly knows them better, even, than he knows the younger pairs!”

ImageLee Hyun Il a possible winner

Apart from the doubles contenders, Korea also has Lee Hyun Il, who, ranked fifth in the world in men’s singles, is always in the hunt for a medal. Lee and fellow singles specialists Shon Seung Mo and Park Sung Hwan have all drawn tricky first round opponents for September 18th in the form of Chetan Anand, Joachim Persson, and Ronald Susilo respectively.

Incidentally, Lee Hyun Il, who has beaten Taufik Hidayat three times already this year, is not the only Korean singles player to have beaten a reigning world champion recently. Hwang Hye Youn, ranked 21st in the world but entering the tournament with a 9/16 seeding, was the dark horse who eliminated Xie Xingfang on her way to a runner-up finish at the Thailand Open. Coach Kim admitted that while Hwang’s silver medal in Thailand was encouraging, her performances are still inconsistent. He said this as Hwang approached to bow and announce that she’d finished training for the day. The coach then added in a lower voice but with a hopeful smile “We think there is a slight chance that she will do well at the World Championships.”

ImageTough year for the best Korean mixed

A large void has been left on the team by the withdrawal of Lee Hyo Jung. Lee, seeded second in mixed doubles with Lee Jae Jin and third in women’s doubles with Lee Kyung Won, sustained a lower back injury in the semi-finals of the Korea Open. She had been training and receiving treatment since then but the final decision came down this week and all three Lees ended up staying home.

It has been a tough year for the mixed pair. Winners of four tournaments in 2005, they have yet to win a tournament this year. Coach Kim said that Lee Jae Jin’s long-time men’s doubles partnership with Jung Jae Sung ended last year so that Lee could concentrate on mixed doubles. However, this year he has lacked focus and has not worked as hard in training or in the tournaments and that has meant periodic frustration for Lee Hyo Jung.

Lee Hyo Jung’s injury comes at a time when the two had starting clicking together as a pair again. They were no doubt anxious to live down their shocking quarter-final defeat at the hands of Shirley and Runesten-Petersen of New Zealand in Anaheim. Last year marked the first time since 1997 that the mixed doubles final of the world championships did not feature a Korean team. Lee Yong Dae and Hwang Yu Mi have a chance to revive the Korean mixed tradition but, ranked 12th in the world, this pair is not yet considered a top contender.

The Korean team left for Spain on the 15th of September. That schedule gave most of the players three days to get over jet-lag while Jung Jae Sung, who is not playing mixed doubles and has a bye in men’s doubles, doesn’t play until the 20th. He says this is a far cry from the only other time he played in Spain, which was at the 2001 World Championships in Seville. That time, he said, between the arrival of their flight in Madrid and the start of their first match, they had only 30 hours and that that included a 7-hour bus trip!

Apart from the travel woes, the Korean players seem to like playing in Europe. The fans are very receptive and they applaud after every rally and when either team makes a good play. What seems certain is that the Spanish fans are in for a treat when Korea’s best take on the world’s best in Madrid.

Don Hearn

About Don Hearn

Don Hearn is an Editor and Correspondent who hails from a badminton-loving town in rural Canada. He joined the Badzine team in 2006 to provide coverage of the Korean badminton scene and is committed to helping Badzine to promote badminton to the place it deserves as a global sport. Contact him at: don @ badzine.net