KOREA MASTERS SF – New winners abound

The home team once again dominates the Korea Masters, locking up 4 titles and posting 2016 runner-up Lee Jang Mi in contention for the 5th but stars Lee Yong Dae […]

The home team once again dominates the , locking up 4 titles and posting 2016 runner-up Lee Jang Mi in contention for the 5th but stars Lee Yong Dae and Yoo Yeon Seong will not be among the many home favourites in the finals.

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

The television court featured five attempts by visiting shuttlers to oust Korean challengers but when the dust cleared, only Gao Fangjie (pictured right), winner of the only all-Chinese semi-final, was the sole visitor still in the running for a title at the Korea Masters Gold.  Gao benefitted from the heavy lifting her compatriot Wang Zhiyi did on Friday, beating defending champion Sung Ji Hyun.

Opening proceedings were Macau Open runners-up Seo Seung Jae and Kim Won Ho.  They had their hands full with Chinese Taipei’s Liao Min Chun and Su Cheng Heng (pictured below).  The Dutch Open winners held their nerve at the end of the first game and took it narrowly 25-23.  The next two games belonged to the Korean youngsters, however, and they blasted their way into their second straight Grand Prix Gold final.

“In the first game, we were a little nervous and it took us a while to get over that,” said Seo Seung Jae after the match.  “In the second game, more than feeling pressure at being down a game, I think we just concentrated on enjoying the match and give our all until the last point and I think that is what worked for us in the end.

“They are both ‘big brother pairs’, even teachers, to us so meeting either pair in the final is fine by us.  Either way, we will try not to concentrate on who we’re playing and instead focus on doing our best to show the fans a great final.”

Kim Won Ho was facing one more layer to the prospects for the final.  Graduating from high school in February, he will be joining the Samsung Electromechanics pro team, whose head is his mother Gil Young Ah and whose top stars are Kim Gi Jung and Jung Jae Wook, one of their possible opponents at the time they finished their own semi-final.

“Actually, he hasn’t joined the team yet,” said Seo Seung Jae (pictured below, with Kim Won Ho) with a chuckle.  This despite the fact that it is their respective domestic coaches, Samsung’s Jung Jae Sung and Wonkwang University’s Kim Yong Hyun, who have occupied the bench behind the two youngsters this week.

“Now that we’re here in the final, we’ll try our best not to be nervous and we would really like to win the title this time,” said Kim Won Ho.  “We really are looking at this final as a learning opportunity so we are hoping to play without the pressure to win that I felt particularly in the junior events, where it felt like I was expected to win.”

Their opponents in the final will not be 2014 champions and former world #1s Lee Yong Dae / Yoo Yeon Seong (pictured below).  The star pair were the talk of the tournament this week but it was the unsung pair of Kim Gi Jung and Jung Jae Wook who had the edge in teamwork.

The two have been paired together since Jung joined the Samsung Electromechanics team this year, one of the new recruits to fill the void left by the departing Kim Sa Rang and Lee Yong Dae.  Over the past few months, they have won the Summer Championships and then the Sports Festival, Korea’s two biggest individual events, while Lee and Yoo haven’t played together since September 2016.

Sadly, the match ended with one of numerous faults called on Yoo’s serve.  Yoo was clearly at wit’s end and kept questioning the service judge on the way to the mixed zone even after the players had exited the hall along with the court officials, saying “How can I serve, then?”

Kim and Jung, in contrast, were predictably relaxed and upbeat after their victory.

“Because neither of us are on the national team, we don’t have much pressure of expectations on us,” said Kim Gi Jung after the win.  “We have been able to really have fun playing this tournament and it has also turned out well for us.

“We are competing here under the auspices of our pro team but even normally when we do that, it is a team competition so in this case, if we win, it’s great but we’re not under pressure to.  Our opponents are in the same position in a way but they are the ones who were world #1 and who are really in the spotlight this week and so the pressure has been on them.

“I’m really enjoying the role of being the unknown underdog,” said Jung Jae Wook (pictured right, with Kim Gi Jung).  “Gi Jung sets me up so well that I’ve had lots of practice smashing and that’s why it works so well now.  It’s been a great opportunity to play with him and I’ve really learned a lot.”

“I didn’t really come in with any objective,” said Kim.  “Even yesterday, I thought, well, we’ll be going back home after today’s match and I basically thought the same today.  But even without goals, if you keep fighting until the end and it goes your way, you can still finish first.”

Jung admitted that like every year, he will be trying out to rejoin the national team at the end of this month.  All other Korean finalists are currently on the team but they will also be put to the test.  Some of them are already getting the chance this week to prove their worth to their coaches and fans.

Women’s doubles, was the only other discipline where non-national team members featured in the semi-finals and it remains the only discipline that could have a repeat winner.  Yoon Min Ah and Lee Eun Ah could put up no resistence to Denmark Open champions Lee So Hee / Shin Seung Chan.  Shin and Lee – who won this event without contesting the final when it was temporarily a Grand Prix, back in 2014 – thus became the only Gwangju finalists among the six Koreans slated to appear in the in Dubai later this month.

Malaysia’s Chow Mei Kuan / Lee Meng Yean (pictured above) were the one pair who got off to a very strong start against a home semi-finalist.  They had the new of Kim So Yeong / Kong Hee Yong on the ropes in the first game but the two powerful Koreans came battling back to dominate the next two games and seal yet another all-Korean final.

As in the men’s doubles, the men’s singles will see an all-Korean final but the winner will be brand new.  Three-time winner Lee Dong Keun forced plenty of mistakes from his team-mate Kim Min Ki but he also forced Kim to come up with some amazing rallies and it was indeed the underdog who will contest the final.

Finally, Kim will go against a younger team-mate this week, if a much higher ranked one.  Jeon Hyeok Jin (pictured right) will be looking for a second Grand Prix Gold title to add to his collection after he saw off Vietnam Open winner Khosit Phetpradab in straight games.

The last chance to prevent an all-Korean final came in mixed doubles.  Hafiz Faizal and Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja kept it close in their first game with Seo Seung Jae and Kim Ha Na but it didn’t last.  The Koreans weathered a late surge by the Indonesians and then ran away with the second game.

Kim Ha Na is thus up for a third straight title at the Korea Masters.  What’s more, she and Seo kept their perfect 4 for 4 record in reaching Grand Prix Gold finals since they formed their partnership last spring.  In Macau last month, their perfect winning record was snapped but they will be keen to get back in that groove as well on Sunday.

Their opponents will be Choi Sol Gyu and Chae Yoo Jung (pictured left).  Choi made his comeback this week after missing nearly 3 months following an sustained at the Korea Open .  The layoff forced the pair to miss out on the Finals and to fall away from the threshold of the world’s top 10 but they are back on track and actually back in a Grand Prix Gold final together for the first time since they were juniors, back in 2013.

To do it, Choi and Chae had to win their Canada Open final rematch against Kim Won Ho and Shin Seung Chan.  As both Shin and Kim were vying to appear in two finals on Sunday, the loss leaves Seo Seung Jae as the last hope for a doubles double this weekend.

In the second last match on the television court, Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapon had the chance to deny a Korean title sweep.  The Koreans have swept the titles already four times since the event became a Grand Prix Gold in 2011 and Jindapon faced last year’s runner-up Lee Jang Mi in the semi-finals this year.

Of course, China’s Wang Zhiyi had already warded off the possibility of a fifth all-Korean final when she upset defending champion Sung Ji Hyun on Friday.  Bitburger Open winner Jindapon showed some great fighting spirit but Lee Jang Mi (pictured) was the one who maintained her consistency at the end of each game, both of which she won 21-19.

Lee and Gao Fangjie are both vying for their first ever Grand Prix Gold title on Sunday.  In fact, every final but mixed doubles features at least one player who is on a similar quest.  The only other one with such a title hopeful on each side of the net is men’s doubles, where Kim Won Ho has a Grand Prix but not a Gold, and his opponent Jung Jae Wook is looking for his first international title.

Finals line-up
XD:  Choi Sol Gyu / Chae Yoo Jung (KOR) [1] vs. Seo Seung Jae / Kim Ha Na (KOR) [4]
WS:  Lee Jang Mi (KOR) [5] vs. Gao Fangjie (CHN
WD:  Lee So Hee / Shin Seung Chan (KOR) vs. Kim So Yeong / Kong Hee Yong (KOR)
MS:  Jeon Hyeok Jin (KOR) [4] vs. Kim Min Ki (KOR)
MD:  Kim Won Ho / Seo Seung Jae (KOR) vs. Jung Jae Wook / Kim Gi Jung (KOR)

Click here for complete semi-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