KOREA MASTERS QF – Wang’s Korean quest continues

Chinese youngster Wang Zhiyi is looking for her second title in Korea in three weeks as she ousted defending champion Sung Ji Hyun from the Korea Masters Grand Prix Gold, […]

Chinese youngster Wang Zhiyi is looking for her second title in Korea in three weeks as she ousted defending champion Sung Ji Hyun from the Gold, putting a dent in overall Korean dominance at home.

Story and photos by Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent live in Gwangju

Two weeks ago, Wang Zhiyi (pictured above) won the Korea Junior International in Miryang.  On Friday in Gwangju, she took it to a whole new level when she outplayed 3-time defending champion Sung Ji Hyun to book a spot in her first major semi-final.

The first game was perilously close, but Wang saved 5 game points before finally taking it 27-25.  She had no answer for the veteran’s play in the second game but set a blistering pace in the decider to take it 21-12.

Wang’s opponent in the final will be China Open runner-up Gao Fangjie (pictured below).  Gao fended off the attempt by Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong, also 19, to reach her second Grand Prix Gold semi-final of the year.  The other teenager in the quarter-finals, World Junior Champion Gregoria Mariska (pictured right), was thwarted by last year’s runner-up Lee Jang Mi.  Lee is the last home hope in women’s singles, and will look for another place in the final when she goes up against Bitburger Open champion Nitchaon Jindapon on Saturday.

The Korean trios

The remaining four disciplines each feature a single visiting competitor.  In men’s singles, the surprise entry is still 25-year-old Kim Min Ki.  Not only was he the one who took care of top seed Son Wan Ho on Thursday, but he is the only beater of a top seed to survive the quarter-final round, as Kantaphon Wangcharoen and Panji Ahmad Maulana both fell on Friday.

Kim had a shaky start against German Junior winner Lee Chia Hao but he surged at the end and had a more convincing second game against the teenager from Taiwan.

“My experience has mostly been playing against Korean players so even when I face a player like Son Wan Ho, I don’t feel the pressure I do when I face players from overseas,” said Kim Min Ki (pictured below) after his win.

“It is unfortunate.  We have eight men’s singles players on the team but really only half of them get the chance to play the big events.  The rest of us have International Challenges and some Grand Prix events but overall, not a lot of opportunities.  Even though we’d like to gradually move up, we don’t have the chance.”

In high school, Kim Min Ki was one of Korea’s top boys’ singles players but he just hasn’t had the breakthroughs that some of his team-mates have had.  He has always had the chance to learn from Korea’s best in national team training and even in his pro team, where he has been able to train with Lee Dong Keun and Lee Hyun Il, but only on the rare occasions when they are not training with the national team, playing the big tournaments, or in Hyun Il’s case, involved in overseas leagues.

About his next objective, Kim said, “This month, we have the national team selection process so that is really the next goal for me.  First, I have to be selected again for the national team and only then can I get the opportunity to compete and get results at more international tournaments.

But first, Kim will have a chance to put into practice the experience he has had training with Lee Dong Keun, who has been his team-mate since his middle school days.  Lee came from the brink to beat Indonesia’s Panji Ahmad Maulana in straight games.

Korea’s third will be Jeon Hyeok Jin.  Jeon, who has not been in a final since last year’s Australian Open , enjoyed his third win over Brice Leverdez (pictured) of France.

“He is a very good player.  I have had a lot of trouble against this player in the past and I had trouble against him again today,”

“I’m now sponsored by a Korean company and I have taken advantage of that opportunity to come and play here at both tournaments in Korea.

“That’s it for this year but in 2018, I want to continue on this course, get into the top 20 as soon as possible, and hopefully make it into the top ten in the world.  To do that, I will need to get better results with greater regularity.  If I can consistently reach the quarter-finals in Superseries events, I think I can realize my objective.

In 2017, Leverdez has beaten Tian Houwei and Lee Chong Wei, in addition to adding 3 more wins to his previous 5 against world #7 Chou Tien Chen.  Asked if he feels his level is distinctively higher now, the Frenchman said, “I think I’ve been at this level for about three years but beyond that, I’ve spent about 5 or 6 years now in the top 30.  I think I’m starting to stabilize at a new higher level now.  I think that should see me into the top 20.  It’s been a lot of hard work that has gotten me here and now I’m confident about the future.”

As far as Korea’s doubles trios go, the big story continues to be the youngsters.  20-year-old Seo Seung Jae and 18-year-old Kim Won Ho are into the semi-finals after blocking Lu Ching Yao / Yang Po Han from reaching their fifth Grand Prix Gold semi-final this year.

“This was already the fourth time we’d played them and so that is the degree to which we know them as opponents,” said Seo Seung Jae after the win.  “They had the edge 2-1 against us so we were really looking for the win this time and we felt we knew how to get it.

“But actually, more than winning, we were concentrating on playing well.  I’d said there was more enjoyment involved than nerves.”

Seo Seung Jae and Kim Won Ho (pictured) both made a big leap right before the Sudirman Cup this year.  For Seo, it involved switching from singles to doubles.  Kim, meanwhile, made a concurrent jump from junior to senior events.  And yet, both have been in multiple Grand Prix finals in both doubles and mixed and have already titled.

“I think we felt with all the veterans leaving the national team, we had to hurry to catch up and fill their shoes so at first, there was some pressure that was hard to deal with,” said Kim Won Ho, “but it feels better now, we can enjoy the matches more.”

For Kim, the Sudirman was his first major tournament overseas.  Prior to his arrival on the Gold Coast in May, his entire career had consisted of junior events, two International Challenges, and last year’s Korea Masters.

“It was my first big tournament.  It was great.  I just think it was a great opportunity and I learned so much from it.”

The learning process is still going on for the two young men.  In the semi-finals, they are up against Dutch Open winners Liao Min Chun / Su Cheng Heng and both also advanced in mixed doubles.  They and Kim’s mixed partner Shin Seung Chan are the three players all looking for spots in two finals.

Whoever emerges from that men’s doubles semi-final will have a tough final encounter.  Former world #1s Lee Yong Dae / Yoo Yeon Seong (pictured right), back on court together for the first time since their Korea Open Superseries victory in 2016, had little trouble disposing of compatriots Choi Hyuk Kyun / Park Kyung Hoon.

Former world #2 Kim Gi Jung has formed an impressive partnership in domestic events with Jung Jae Wook (pictured left).  Their team lost both Lee Yong Dae and Kim Sa Rang early this year but Jung has stepped up and he and Kim have won the two biggest national men’s doubles titles this year.

On Friday in Gwangju, the Koreans blew a 19-13 lead against former world #12 Bodin Issara / Nipitphon Puangpuapech that they evidently thought would translate into a straight-game win.  Instead, the Thais converted their comeback and the Koreans were forced to save 4 match points in the decider before finally claiming victory.

In women’s doubles, Malaysia’s Lee Meng Yean / Chow Mei Kuan beat Chae Yoo Jung / Kim Hye Rin to become the one non-Korean pair remaining.  In mixed, Indonesia’s Hafiz Faizal / Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja saw off 2nd-seeded Hee/Tan of Singapore and will attempt to become the first ever to stop Seo Seung Jae / Kim Ha Na from reaching a Grand Prix Gold final.

Click here for complete quarter-final results

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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