PARA-BADMINTON WORLDS – Choong’s 2nd triple flanked by lots of firsts

Rachel Choong again won the triple at the World Para-Badminton Championships while numerous shuttlers won first ever titles. Story and photos by Don Hearn, live from Ulsan England’s Rachel Choong […]

Rachel Choong again won the triple at the World Championships while numerous shuttlers won first ever titles.

Story and photos by Don Hearn, live from Ulsan

England’s Rachel Choong contributed no fewer than 3 to her countries total gold medal haul of 4, winning women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles in the SS6 division.  She repeated the feat she had already accomplished at home in England two years ago.

“I’m ecstatic,” Choong said after her third victory on Sunday in Ulsan.  “Back in Stoke-Mandeville in 2015, it was a surprise to me that I had created history by winning the triple crown and being the first English player ever to do so at the so to do that again, yeah, over the moon!  I’m just super-happy and I can’t come up with any more words to describe how happy I am right now.”

Choong had the benefit of playing with the very same partners who contributed to her triple in 2015 and once again, she and Andrew Martin relegated her women’s doubles partner Rebecca Bedford to silver in the mixed, where Bedford was paired with Fabien Morat of France.  She had won silver two years ago with Jack Shephard, who became the new men’s singles champion by beating his doubles partner Krysten Coombs in a nail-biting final.

“Hopefully, these titles will be a catalyst for the progression of the sport and the audience that it reaches so it is right at that top level in time for Tokyo 2020.”

But sadly, while so many of especially veteran players on the Para-Badminton circuit have had a new injection of motivation with the inclusion of Para-Badminton in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Choong and many of her opponents and friends have been forced by circumstance to continue looking at the big picture.

“When the announcement came that none of the SS6 women’s events would be included in the 2020 Olympics, there was a lot of support for me as a player and disappointment from the audience to say that they’re sorry that I’m not able to go but there isn’t anything we can do about that now and just look forward to the World Championships and the Europeans next year and who knows, 2024 maybe.”

Asked for her thoughts on the increasing numbers of Para-Badminton athletes from the traditional badminton powers, Choong said, “It’s fantastic to see.  The sport is definitely growing.  A good few years ago it was mainly European countries that were showing the dominance in Para-Badminton but now that the sport is progressing and growing a lot more quickly, a lot more countries are able to produce team.  The sport is growing- biggest numbers and most countries as well for these World Championships – so I can only see it getting bigger and bigger, and better.”

In fact, the only other player who contested three finals on Sunday was Korean wheelchair badminton veteran Lee Sam Seop, the only player other than Rachel Choong to win the triple at the 2015 event.

This time, Lee came up short in mixed but still came away with two golds.  Lee, who is the only player to have won a world title in every edition since 2007, played no fewer than 7 matches on Saturday, including a men’s doubles semi-final that followed right on the heels of his gruelling 66-minute singles match against team-mate Lee Dong Seop.

“Fitness is really important and actually, I used to smoke so I just finally quit about two months ago,” said Lee Sam Seop after winning his second title.

“The feeling winning here is a little different.  In the past, we could count on a wheelchair final between two Korean sides but that’s not true any more, not in singles, doubles or mixed.  It’s a lot tougher as the levels have evened out a lot across the countries.”

Ulsan is not far from Lee’s hometown and the city has been the training base for most of Korea’s top wheelchair players for the last few years.

“In the past, I would expect to win one gold medal and hope to get two.  Now I still hope for two but I came in with a goal of winning one and I feel very lucky that I was able to win two titles again.”

Lee partnered 3-time WH2 men’s singles champion Kim Jung Jun to win the men’s doubles title.  In the final, they beat Asian Para Games gold medallists Choi Jung Man / Kim Sung Hun.  Choi and Kim have been very scarce since 2014.  Although Choi was actually the only wheelchair athlete to win two golds at the Incheon Games, he and Kim both said that there hiatus – and the fact that they were only entered in doubles for Ulsan – was due to their being unable to pass the competitive selection process for the Korean wheelchair team.

The eventual silver medallists experienced the evening out phenomenon described by Lee Sam Seop in the semi-final.  Their Chinese opponents Mai Jianpeng / Qu Zimo saved 5 match points in the decider before the Koreans finally won that one 22-20.  Despite coming into the final with much fresher forearms than Kim and Lee, they still had to settle for silver.

Mazur denies Tarun a third

In the SL4 men’s singles final, 20-year-old Lucas Mazur of France played a repeat of the 2015 final against Tarun of India.  Tarun had won two titles in a row but was at a loss for how to handle the in-form Frenchman in the second game of their final in Ulsan.

“It’s exceptional because I have come a long way after playing tournaments in the U.S., in Asia, and all over to prepare,” said Mazur after the victory.  “I am so happy because I have worked and worked so hard over the last four years and finally I have taken this title so it’s enormously meaningful.”

The SL4 category field looked somewhat stronger this year as it included the two-time champion as well as the Asian Para Games gold medallist Fredy Setiawan.  However, as Setiawan found out in the semi-final on Saturday, it was really the improved Mazur who had really strengthened the field.

Of the semi-final, Mazur said, “I felt we were at the same level but I came in right away and played aggressively and he made some mistakes and for me, everything seemed to be working.  It really feels great after all the hard work.  All the French players have been training so hard every day and it feels great to win for the French team and for all the European Para-Badminton players.”

Lucas Mazur agreed that he was on a much higher level than he had been when he won silver in 2015: “Of course.  It has been all the time spent training.  Now, I’m really hoping to win a world title in 2019 and who knows, maybe in 2020 as well.  Every year, you improve in the game and hope that it will be enough to win the biggest title and that is what has happened for me today.  Of course, I hope I can peak again at the Paralympics in 2020 but that’s still far off.  The next big goal is the European Para-Badminton Championships in France in 2018.”

The Championships in Ulsan also saw winning performances from those making their first ever appearances at a tournament of this level.  In the WH2 women’s singles event, Chinese youngster Liu Yutong easily despatched the 2013 champion Lee Sun Ae in the semi-final before a convincing final against compatriot Xu Tingting, who had edged defending champion Amnouy Wetwithan of Thailand on Saturday.

Many familiar faces, some new colour medals

In the SU5 division, four-time defending men’s singles champion Cheah Liek Hou of Malaysia had his work cut out for him facing Asian Champion Suryo Nugroho.  Cheah had beaten Nugroho at the ASEAN Para Games two months ago but it was the Indonesian who got the upper hand in the first game and forced Cheah to play catch-up.

“At the beginning of the match, I tried to play an attacking game but I wasn’t getting any points by attacking so I tried to slow down the match,” said Cheah after finally winning the match.  “In the second game, I could see that I was starting to earn more points by slowing down the game.”

“Nugroho is my main rival.  I’ve played him many times before but before this, he was not able to attend the World Championships.  There are also two more Indonesian players who could not come to this tournament and they are better than us.”

“Maybe next year, my manager is going to come up with a programme for elite Para-Badminton players but nothing is set yet.”

Nugroho, who is also making his first appearance at the Worlds, paired up with Singapore’s Tay Wei Ming to take on Cheah again in men’s doubles, where the Malaysian was also defending champion with SL4 partner Hairul Fozi Saaba.  Tay had lost to Cheah and two different partners in the semis in the last two editions.

Nugroho and Tay showed the nerves of steel in the second and third games and each celebrated their first world title after winning the last final of the day, winning 21-18 in the decider.

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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