WORLD JUNIORS 2006 – Korea Fights for Three Golds; China Cruises to Two

The final day of the 2006 Incheon World Junior Badminton Championships had a lot of thrills for a day when all the favourites ended up winning. China showed that there […]

ImageThe final day of the 2006 Incheon World Badminton Championships had a lot of thrills for a day when all the favourites ended up winning. China showed that there is no reason to doubt that its dominance of the women’s events will continue while Korean superstar Lee Yong-dae did not disappoint the local fans in the mixed and boys’ doubles.

By Don Hearn, live from Incheon

Finding a Chink in the Korean Armour

Prior to Saturday’s mixed doubles final, Li Tian had lost to Lee Yong-dae a total of 3 times in the last two junior tournaments. The desire to finally break that slump was easily visible on the faces of Li and his partner Ma Jin as they got off to a strong start, leading 11-6 at the interval. Lee and partner Yoo Hyun-young (pictured) made several moves to narrow the gap and were within striking distance at 16-18 but the Chinese pair maintained the edge and gave themselves four straight game points. It took three for them to deliver Lee Yong-dae his first game loss in any junior tournament this year.

It took a fortuitously mishit shuttle at the beginning of the second game to finally get the Korean pair into the driver’s seat with a 5-4 lead but this was hardly enough momentum for them to move into a comfortable lead. The umpire corrected a late call on the Koreans’ baseline to give the Chinese the point and tie the game back up at 13. The Koreans finally got some breathing room at 19-15 but the Chinese narrowed the gap to 20-18 before the Koreans finished the game at 21-19 when Ma popped a loose drive to invite an explosive smash from Lee and exasperated complaints from her partner.

The Koreans never achieved the buffer zone like they had been experiencing in all of their previous matches this week. Yoo seemed to get more nervous and was increasingly looking to Lee to rescue the rallies whenever possible. Yoo admitted later that, while she knew the final would not be a cakewalk, she kept thinking that it would be so nice if they could win as easily as they had in the mixed team final the previous week.

The final match was again close. The two teams changed ends with the Koreans in front 11-9. The first lead of more than 3 points came when Lee and Yoo went up 13-9. Lee’s increasingly aggressive play both brought the crowd to life and allowed Yoo to get more into her game and the Koreans widened the lead to 16-10. It was Yoo’s deft net play that got the Koreans to 19-13 and an error by the Chinese gave the hometown favourites seven match points. The final score was 21-14.

After the match Lee commented on what it was like to be the only player in the tournament who is ranked in the top five in the world. « There are already a lot of expectations of me on the national team and I thought a lot about the disappointment it would cause if I were to lose at a junior tournament. » He said he was very satisfied with his performance in Incheon, especiallly compared to the last such event in 2004 when he didn’t feel he played well.

Hong Ji-hoon Keeps his Eye on the Prize

As of last week, it may have seemed that Hong Ji-hoon was being left behind. Asian Junior Championships runner-up Han Ki-hoon was the one on whom the Korean team depended in its victory over China. However, Hong insisted « I was not disappointed at all. It allowed me to focus on doing well in the individual event. »

That focus was certainly evident in Hong’s playing as he got in front early and was never really in trouble in the first game of the boys’ singles final against Tommy Sugiarto. Hong quickly finished the game 21-13, keeping the Indonesian scrambling backward and diving left and right.

Things started very differently in the second game as Tommy got off to a 3-0 lead, doing a better job of moving Hong around the court. His defense was also a little quicker and he was forcing more low driving rallies, thus preventing Hong from continuing to score points on big smashes and leaping, deceptive drops. Hong tried to catch Sugiarto short with punch clears as he had in the first game but Tommy was much harder to fool and Hong lost concentration. An error by Hong at the net gave Sugiarto the second game 21-10.

In the decider, the two players were neck-and-neck until Tommy moved out to a 14-11 lead with a couple of deceptive touches at the net. When a drive was called in on his forehand sideline to narrow his lead to 14-12, Tommy protested to no avail. He later identified this as the turning point in the match. « I was doing everything I needed to do to win but at that point I lost my concentration. »

Playing very cautiously after that, Tommy seemed reluctant to lift the shuttle and desperate to finish the rallies whenever he got the attack. Hong, for his part, took his defense up a notch frustrating Tommy even more. With Hong leading 19-15, Tommy barely got off the floor at one point but still managed to scramble back and play a perfect backhand crosscourt drop. He finally finished the rally by pushing over Hong’s backhand shoulder after the latter had gone to the floor to retrieve a deft drop. Unfortunately for the Indonesian, that would prove to be his last point of the tournament as two rallies later Hong smashed to Tommy’s forehand side to win the final game 21-16.

Fitness and Pressure

By the time India’s Saina Nehwal got to the finals, the ordeal of this ten-day tournament had taken its toll on her fitness level, she revealed after the match. Wang Yihan of China seemed to have no trouble keeping Saina off her game and required a mere 26 minutes to finish the match 21-13, 21-9. Saina looked increasingly desperate late in the second game, at one point trying a long, low serve which resulted in an easy kill for the tall Wang.

In fact this final was one of the fastest matches of the tournament for Wang, who said that she was able to concentrate on preparing better for her matches later in the tournament. Something Wang, Nehwal, and Lee Yong-dae all mentioned was the added pressure in a junior tournament for players who have already made a name for themselves on the Grand Prix circuit. Saina, for her part, is looking forward to the Asian Games, where she says she can relax and, without any pressure, concentrate on trying to beat some of the Chinese players.

Gold on the Third Try for Ma Jin

In the girls’ doubles, Ma Jin and Wang Xiaoli of China were determined not to let the Korean girls get as close as they had in the final of the team event. Wang said afterward that they had studied videotapes to examine the Koreans’ playing style and that they resolved to work very hard on the court. The preparation paid off as the Chinese took the first game easily 21-13.

The second game was much closer and the Koreans led from 7-6. A line call dispute with the Koreans up 17-15 brought an appearance by the tournament referee. Amazingly, the conference finished with the umpire making a correction such that the Chinese drive was called in and the gap narrowed. After regaining the lead at 18-17, the increasingly confident Chinese lifted the shuttle over a dozen times in a row but returned all the Koreans best smashes and drops. When they finally got the attack back, they finished the rally with a single smash. Ma and Wang won 21-18 on their second match point.

After the match, the Koreans lamented their inability to finish the rallies at the net and said that they needed to be better aware of each other’s positions. They said that they had had very little practice together as a pair.

The Chinese pair looked much happier after the match but Ma Jin, when asked how she felt having won two silvers and one gold at these championships, replied « Not good. I wanted to win three golds. »

Last Gold for Lee and Cho

The boys’ doubles may have been Li Tian’s last chance for a victory over Lee Yong-dae but it was definitely not the best chance. Lee has been playing with his partner and high school classmate, Cho Gun-woo, since elementary school and the two have won 8 domestic and international tournaments together since fifth grade. The partnership may not have much of a future, however. In a few months, both players will be moving to the Samsung Electromechanics team, where Lee will play with Jung Jae-sung for both domestic and international tournaments while Cho is still without a partner for either.

Cho was very nervous at the beginning of the match and China took an early 8-3 lead. However, the Koreans caught back up at 9-9 and soon ran away with the game, winning 21-12.

Cho really came alive in the second game, showing an impressive repertoire of shots to complement Lee Yong-dae’s consistent play. In one rally, there were two occasions where Cho incredibly took two swings at the shuttle to make his shot. In another, he sent an amazing behind-the-back lift to the back of the Chinese court to keep the rally alive. Some precision net play by Cho gave Korea four match points and moments later they were once again celebrating their victory over China.

After the medal ceremony, Cho was celebrating with family and friends as Lee Yong-dae was being interviewed on national television. Cho says that he has been very lucky to have had the chance to play with a partner of Lee’s calibre and that he has tried hard to bring his game up to that level. It is, of course, too early to tell what the future holds for these two champions. They are not, after all, the first partnership to be broken up after high school. The same thing happened a little over a decade ago to two little-known players named Kim Dong-moon and Ha Tae-kwun.

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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