SUNG JI HYUN – Carrying on a Family Tradition

In recent years, one name has stood out among Korea’s perennially strong ranks of junior hopefuls.  Oddly, even before Sung Ji Hyun made her mark internationally last summer by beating […]

In recent years, one name has stood out among Korea’s perennially strong ranks of hopefuls.  Oddly, even before Sung Ji Hyun made her mark internationally last summer by beating world #1 Zhou Mi in Macau, hers was already a household name here in Korea.

Story and Photos: Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent

Sung Ji Hyun is the daughter of one of Korea’s most famous badminton couples.  Her mother, Kim Yun Ja, was the last player to win All England titles in both singles and doubles and now is the head at the Korea National University of Physical Education.  Her father, Sung Han Kook, was Korea’s first men’s singles star and after winning bronze at the Asian Games and the All England, he became of the national team.

Ji Hyun has won four national high school titles so far but the last of those came at the event that coincided with the 2009 World Junior Championships, where she consequently did not get the chance to represent Korea.  As a result, Sung had to be content with her outings at the senior level, where she managed a semi-final appearance at the Osaka International and then, just a few weeks after her 18th birthday, she beat Zhou Mi to enter the quarter-finals of the Macau Open Grand Prix Gold in August.

Those were the days…

Ji Hyun says that she knew very early that she wanted to be a badminton player.  When she was six, her mother used to take her along to the elementary school where she was coaching at the time and before long, the daughter’s life path became clear to her.  But while the career choice itself may have been ‘like father, like mother, like daughter’, becoming an elite athlete in this decade, is very different from how it was in the 1970s, when her parents went down that road.

“Mom and Dad used to tell me that when they were kids, they didn’t have gyms like this so I should be thankful and train really hard,” says Ji Hyun.  “I heard many times how they didn’t have stringing machines so the players had to string their own racquets by hand.”
“I first played badminton on the playing field of my elementary school, which was in the countryside,” explains her father, Sung Han Kook.  “I can’t even say I was an elite athlete at that time.  I was just playing badminton in a small town school, but I progressed to that stage later.  These days, kids begin in an elite program and start training with a proper team.  The environment is so different.”

However, mother Kim Yun Ja, who was very supportive of her daughter since Ji Hyun really seemed to want to play badminton, described another, even more extreme hurdle in her experience as a young player.

“When I was young, I really wanted to play badminton but my mother wouldn’t let me,” explains Kim.  “In fact, that’s why I went to Masan.  I lived in Jinju but I actually ran away from home to play badminton in Masan.  My mother didn’t know.

Asked what she would say to parents whose child expresses interest in badminton, Kim says, “If your child really wants to become an athlete, let them do it.  These days, a lot of parents play badminton themselves and they try to push their kids to join a team.  I don’t think this is a good way for a child to take this path.”

Still, the perfect badminton family has its limits.  Ji Hyun has a little brother who also has expressed interest.  “We have heard that from him from time to time: ‘can’t I play too?’” says his father, “but we’ve told him no.”

“How can you have the entire family doing the same thing?” adds Kim.  “I really didn’t want to let the last member of the family to devote his life to badminton too.  He wasn’t that disposed to studying but he didn’t seem ready to devote his life to athletics either.  He just happened to like sports.  But I just wouldn’t let him and told him to concentrate on his studies.  I suspect he still feels that deep down, sports are what he would have preferred – I mean, his instincts are toward sports – but I was really against him going into sports.”

The New Generation

Ji Hyun, of course, is part of a new badminton generation in Korea.  However, so far, she is the only prodigy, among the progeny of Korea’s first generation of badminton superstars, which produced, aside from Sung and Kim, two more high-profile badminton unions.  The other two saw Kim Yun Ja’s former partner Yoo Sang Hee marry 1992 Olympic gold medallist Kim Moon Soo and nine-time All England champion Chung Myung Hee married current national team head coach Kim Joong Soo.

Sung Han Kook explains that Korea’s second-generation stars are more numerous than it appears, as many children of slightly lesser-known players are taking up the game while the children with only one ex-national team parent tend to generate less attention.  Still others are still young and may break onto the scene in the coming years.  Apart from Sung Ji Hyun, there is also 2006 World Junior Champion Yoo Hyun Young, whose father is the head coach of one of Korea’s most successful professional women’s teams.  Yoo was coached by her father in her high school days, an experience that is slightly new to Sung Ji Hyun, who is joining her mother’s university team in 2010 and who expects to go on to play for her father at Daekyo in four years’ time.

“I’ve always worked under different coaches so far so being coached by my parents is definitely going to be a change,” says Ji Hyun.  “Still, I think just playing at the higher level will be the biggest difference.”

All in all, being the daughter of famous parents has its ups and downs.  Ji Hyun explains: “One advantage is that whenever I need equipment, they are always able to provide it.  Also, if there is anything wrong with my game, my parents can teach me.  On the other hand, they are very busy with their own teams and so am I so it is difficult to spend time with them.

“I think that I’m getting a lot more attention because Mom and Dad are famous,” she continues.  “Even though I haven’t achieved that much as a player yet, I get a lot of requests for interviews, particularly together with my parents.”

The one achievement that did go some distance toward justifying the attention was her win over Zhou Mi in August.  However, while Ji Hyun counts it as her proudest on-court moment to date, she downplays the auspiciousness of the victory, saying: “I just went out there intending to do my best and it worked out for me.  I guess it was just luck.  It certainly wasn’t my skill that did it.”

Like mother, like daughter?

The first time Sung Ji Hyun faced a top international opponent was when she played Pi Hongyan at home at last year’s Korea Open.  She managed only a single point in the first game.  However, after beating Zhou Mi in August, Sung also had a rematch with Pi at the and showed how far she had progressed, stretching the French veteran to three games and losing only 19-21 in the decider.

Her mother, Kim Yun Ja remembers her own struggle as a budding international player.  At age seventeen, Kim was one of four women who made up Korea’s first contingent at a European tournament in 1981.  Just weeks before team-mate Hwang Sun Ae pulled off her historic All England win, Kim recalls her nightmare outing at the Denmark Open, on the same European tour.

“What I remember most is having difficulty dealing with the jet lag.  That was my first time travelling overseas and the coaches kept talking to us in the airplane so we couldn’t even sleep there.  Then we wanted to go to bed as soon as we got to the hotel but that was morning so we just couldn’t sleep.”

Her husband points out that the flights to Europe in the early 80s had to be routed via Alaska to avoid Soviet airspace so a trip that takes around 10 hours or so today took 22 or 23 hours back then.

“Then came the matches,” says Kim Yun Ja.  “I remember I had to play against [then defending champion from England] Nora Perry and she beat me 15-zip, 15-5 and that’s the other thing I remember the most.  The coach was scolding me, yelling ‘You look like a fool out there!’ but I was so out of it on the court because I had no idea how to deal with the jet lag.”

Later, Kim actually became Nora Perry’s successor to the Denmark Open crown, winning three women’s doubles titles in a row there, beginning in 1984 but she seemed to peak in 1986, when she won the All England singles title and the Denmark Open singles and doubles titles.

Ji Hyun, who still has no experience playing against the top Chinese women admits “I need to work on my fitness so I can run the court better and in terms of skills, I still have to improve a lot.”

Two teachers, lots of experience, and now, a very special student…

Sung Han Kook and Kim Yun Ja came onto the international scene just as China was making its own triumphant entrance into the badminton world.  But since they retired in 1990, they have been committed to bringing up Korea’s next generation of singles players.  Bang Soo Hyun’s women’s singles gold in Atlanta and Shon Seung Mo’s silver medal in Athens both came under Sung Han Kook’s tenure as a national team singles coach and both count Ra Kyung Min, Lee Hyun Il, Jun Jae Youn, and Park Sung Hwan among their former pupils.  Now they hope their experience can benefit their most important student.

“The Chinese players are all very fast and have great stamina,” Sung Han Kook points out.  “Our Korean players, if they want to beat them, have to be just as fast and have to be able to keep their stamina up right to the end of a long match.  But they also need to be mentally strong.  If Ji Hyun can manage all that, then she has a chance to beat the best.

Sung says that their hopes for Ji Hyun are definitely influenced by the fact that he and his wife both retired just before badminton became a full medal event at the Olympics.

“I think there is no honour bigger than an Olympic medal and since we never had the chance, it is something we really hope for for Ji Hyun, that she can go to the Olympics and do well there,” explains Sung, adding that the pressure on Ji Hyun is probably greater than for her teammates, most of whom are the only badminton players in their respective families.

“She knows that her mom and dad did well so she is going to feel that she, too, has to perform.  Isn’t that right?” he asks his daughter, with a chuckle.

Ji Hyun herself is looking at the short term, too, though: “Well, of course, I really hope to be able to compete in the Olympics in 2012 but for now and for this year, I’m just concentrating on improving my .”

“Ji Hyun is still young,” her mother adds.  “It’s true that she’s getting a lot of attention because of her parents but she also plays well and has the right body type.  What worries me, though, is that younger players like Ji Hyun might not get the proper time to train.  I think that this has been a problem for Jang Soo Young and Kim Moon Hi, too, and I’m particularly concerned for Ji Hyun that the need for ranking points means that the national team players get sent to a lot of tournaments and then they aren’t getting the full training routine they need.”

Kim Yun Ja, like other Korean women’s singles players after her, ended up switching to concentrate doubles near the end of her career, but she doesn’t see the same thing happening to Ji Hyun, whom she says isn’t suited to doubles.  Instead, she, too, would like Ji Hyun to be the one to recapture glory in the discipline for Korea.

“Bang Soo Hyun won an Olympic gold medal, and since that’s the same event that Ji Hyun competes in, it would be nice if Ji Hyun could do like Bang Soo Hyun did,” says Kim.  “Winning an Olympic medal: yes, that’s what we hope for our daughter.”

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