KOREA GP 2010 SF – China 2, Korea 3!

…or perhaps that should be China 4, Korea 6 as badminton’s superpower locked up both singles titles – eliminating the last two Korean threats – while Korean pairs locked up […]

…or perhaps that should be China 4, Korea 6 as badminton’s superpower locked up both singles titles – eliminating the last two Korean threats – while Korean pairs locked up all three doubles titles, eliminating, amongst others, the last three Chinese pairs.

Story and photos: Don Hearn, live in Gimcheon.

Taking a public bus to Gimcheon Indoor Gymnasium, two things became clear about the nature of badminton in the Republic of Korea.  The first was the fact that the only road from the nearest bus stop to the gymnasium happened to lead between rice and vegetable fields, symbolizing the rural roots of the game and its most successful practitioners in Korea.  The second was the gigantic, empty parking lot, a preview of the masses of empty seats to be seen inside the hall, a commonplace sight in a nation where having some of the best players in the world is unfortunately no guarantee that they will be appreciated.

But despite the empty space, the air inside the hall on Saturday was still filled with the sounds of a very appreciative audience, an advantage unfortunately denied Gimcheon-born Choi Ho Jin a day earlier.  And very early on, Korea’s first and second string athletes gave the crowd plenty to cheer about.

Yoo Yeon Seong and Kim Min Jung (pictured) are now favourites to win the mixed doubles title but even before their defeat of #2 seeds Nikolaenko/Sorokina, they were runners-up at last year’s Asian Championships and it was obvious that they would be particularly hungry to do well in Gimcheon given the opportunity presented by the absence of their higher-ranked compatriots.  They took control early in both games but allowed the Russians to approach.  Still, they kept the lead each time and won 21-15, 21-17.

Eom Hye Won and Choi Young Woo (pictured below) began with almost opposite fortunes on the adjacent court, however.  While the TV cameras were trained on the comparatively uneventful Kim/Yoo win, the two 19-year-olds were losing to China’s Hong Wei / Bao Yixin by almost identical scores to those by which their compatriots were winning.  Hong and Bao were driven, powerful, and completely in control, taking the first game 21-10.

It looked like an entirely different pair that emerged on court in the second game.  Eom and Choi were tactical and clean and carved out a 9-1 lead early in the second.  During the break, Choi said that their coach, former Olympian Lee Dong Soo, had directed them not to give the Chinese any attacking opportunities but to keep it low at the net.

Lee’s charges followed the directives to the letter but they couldn’t stop the Chines from adapting.  From a commanding 14-7 position, the Koreans still let the Chinese back into it, allowing them even to tie at one point, but they kept their heads, and didn’t relinquish the lead, taking it 21-16.  The pattern was almost the same in the deciding game but the Chinese caught up earlier and took the lead.  The Koreans surged when it counted and booked their ticket to the finals by taking it 22-20.

Eom and Choi were both the top high school players in the nation last year but were denied a chance at international junior glory when Korea sent a younger team to the Asian Juniors to prepare them for this year’s Youth Olympics and then stayed away from the World Juniors because of a domestic tournament.  Even so, neither Choi nor Eom seemed at all miffed by the missed opportunity.

“Regrets?” said Choi Young Woo, somewhat surprised by the question. “I don’t think it’s cause for regret.  We have been seniors for a year now and it has been a good year of hard and valuable training.  We are very well prepared for this type of event now.

“Even though I just started training recently at the national training centre, we had already played together as juniors and now we have a chance to play together since we are on the same university team.  We joke around a lot, too, and are good friends.”

“Young Woo is the funnier one, though,” Eom points out.

Sunday will see the pair play in their first international final.  “We are not going into the final with any expectations,” said Choi.  “This is a learning opportunity.”

All intra-national finals

Two trends that began in the first matches were to continue throughout the afternoon.  One was that of final settings between compatriots – possibly boding ill for finals day excitement – and the other was the second day comeback trend, which ensured ample thrills, for semi-finals day, at least.

Women’s singles provided the least of the thrills.  Liu Xin had a slight deficit to make up in her second game against compatriot Zhou Hui but she reeled Zhou in and took the match by a comfortable 21-14, 21-16.  Sung Ji Hyun kept her second game close against Li Xuerui (pictured) but Li found the empty spaces enough times that she was able to easily add a senior circuit chapter to the winning streak over Sung that she began two years ago in juniors, winning this one 21-17, 21-14.

Men’s doubles made a brief, early appearance for the benefit of television viewers and Lee Yong Dae and Jung Jae Sung (pictured) were clearly who the suddenly larger crowd were there to see.  They did not disappoint, either, wowing all present with their power and precision play.  The first game did not last long but China’s Liu Xiaolong / Qiu Zihan did the fans a favour by stepping up their game and taking an 11-5 lead in the second game.  Jung/Lee’s comeback was even more what the Korean spectators were after and with more jumps and shouts and constant artillery from Jung Jae Sung at the back, Korea’s favourite pair took the match in two.

Lee Dong Keun and Wang Zhengming came up out of juniors at the same time but never met each other.  Instead, Lee came up short a few times against Wang’s rival compatriot Gao Huan.  Now the two are making their entry on the world stage at the same time, too, having been kept on ice for a couple of years.  Wang made his entry earlier, at this year’s Asian Championships, but Lee was no slouch making the Canada Open quarter-finals and he showed Wang today that he is no pushover.

Wang did manage to pull away in the first game for a decisive 21-14 win but in the second, Lee kept it close throughout and even had a pair of chances to close out the game for himself before Wang finally took it 23-21 and saved himself the trouble of playing three games the day before his battle with Bao Chunlai.

Bao Chunlai (pictured) was just as decisive as Wang in his first game against Japan’s Takuma Ueda.  But it was Ueda who lead throughout most of the second.  However, Bao appeared to reveal that he might have been playing a dangerous game of nonchalant catch-up and he finally put the hammer down when, trailing 12-15, he put together a 7-point run to pull within earshot of the victory.  Earshot is right, too, because in a seeming effort to pump himself up to the challenge, he began to punctuate his smashes with tennis-style vociferations.  Takuma still got back into it after that, but he never reached game point and Bao finished it up 21-13, 22-20.

Women’s doubles: Eom Hye Won again!

When the women got back on court, Eom Hye Won managed to book her second finals ticket, a distinction she now shares only with one of her opponents of Sunday, Yoo Yeon Seong.  She and Kim Ha Na had an unexpected handful disposing of Asian Under-17 winners Shin Seung Chan / Lee So Hee.  The two 16-year-olds showed they had power in spades but also demonstrated some deft net play and overall maturity and forced the match to a third game.  Eom and Kim, one of three players in action today who recently returned to Korea’s national team, finally took charge in the third game and earned their spot in what for both will be their first ever senior international final.

Yoo Hyun Young and (pictured top) have a pattern with Korea’s late season events.  In 2007, the first year of the Korea International Challenge, they ousted Macau’s Zhang Dan / Zhang Zhibo in the semi-finals, then after a one-year hiatus, they came back last year and beat top-seeded Thai pair in the semis and now this year, even with the change in the tournament’s status, they’ve done the heavy lifting again and taken care of China Masters runners-up Bao Yixin / Lu Lu of China.  All three times, including this weekend, they have faced another Korean pair in the final.

It certainly wasn’t easy, though.  Bao and Lu dominated the Korean pair 21-12 in the first game but the Koreans began to figure out the game plan in the second.  Both pairs stepped up their game in the decider and the lead changed hands continually.  It was the Chinese who had the first match point but the Koreans dug deep and Yoo Hyun Young, in particular, who had been relying on finesse for much of the match, experimented with a slightly faster pace at exactly the right time and the Koreans catapulted to the finish line, winning 12-21, 21-16, 22-20.

Goh Wei Shem and Teo Kok Siang once again were involved in the last match of the day but this time they were fighting for survival from the get-go.  Ko Sung Hyun and Yoo Yeon Seong dominated the Malaysians in the first game but it was the Malaysians who held sway throughout most of the second, in a pattern that was by then familiar to all present.  In the end, though, they did not have what it took to beat Korea’s #2 pair, now ranked 6th in the world, and the men’s doubles final will not only be a an all-Korean affair, but it will also be a repeat of last year’s Korea International Challenge.

The two Korean pairs put on one heck of a show last November and this year all five finals should provide plenty of excitement as all are fairly evenly matched.  Mixed doubles may be a bit of an exception as you have basically a top-20 pair against an unranked one but all the finals except the men’s doubles feature hot young challengers playing far above their pay grade and when Yoo Yeon Seong and his partner meet fellow double finalist Eom Hye Won and hers, you can bet that the drive and tenacity that got the youngsters there will feature in another thrilling badminton match.

The final question remains whether enough of the people of Gimcheon will cross the dormant rice fields and come in from the cold to give these remarkable athletes the audience they truly deserve.

For complete results, CLICK HERE

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