When Korean head coach Kang Kyung Jin predicted at the start of the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2017 that his team would likely make the final, only the team’s staunchest supporters would’ve expected that to come true.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened as the three-time champions, having arrived in Gold Coast with a clutch of teenaged players, surged into the final beating Thailand 3-1.
When Women’s Singles ace Sung Ji Hyun (featured image) extracted an error after a nervous spell against Ratchanok Intanon in the fourth match of the semi-final tie, it marked a special chapter in Korean badminton – for the Asian powerhouse had arrived in Gold Coast without their biggest names. For Sung, it was a battle to prove herself – for, as she later admitted, she had often faltered in crunch semi-final and final matches. The destination is still in sight, but for Korea, to make the final itself was a herculean task at the beginning of the Sudirman Cup.
For a while on Saturday, though, it looked like it was going to be Thailand’s day in the sun.
Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai, their talismanic Mixed Doubles combination of recent times, were top-notch against Choi Solgyu and Chae Yoo Jung in the opening match. Puavaranukroh was a picture of frenetic energy and creative shotmaking, opening up the court with some acute angles from the deep, while Taerattanachai overshadowed her opposite number Chae Yoo Jung by disallowing her any leeway at the net. All through the match, Chae barely exerted her presence at the front, with the Thais successful in pushing the Koreans back and surging forward at the first opportunity. The Thais finished off the job in 41 minutes, 21-16 21-12.
All the pressure was on Korea’s Men’s Singles spearhead Son Wan Ho – his opponent Suppanyu Avihingsanon, despite losing five previous matches to the Korean, flew with the momentum his compatriots had created. The tall Thai was all aggression and pace as he pocketed the first game, and it took all of Son’s defensive brilliance to rein him in. The Korean gradually found his tempo, and yet it was a tight match until 17 in the third, after which Avihingsanon made four soft errors to hand Son the match: 18-21 21-10 21-17.
“My legs felt heavy because of the matches I played this week,” said Son. “I felt tired in the first game, but knew I had to win. I’ve beaten him five times before, but in February it went to three games. Also, today is the semifinal and I was under greater pressure. He is an attacking player, I had to focus on my defence and cut down on my errors.”
After his exuberant display in the Mixed Doubles, it was a deflated Dechapol Puavaranukroh who turned up for the Men’s Doubles with Bodin Isara against Choi Solgyu and Seo Seung Jae. There was little spark in the Thai combination – Bodin was unusually leaden-footed, while Puavaranukroh’s touch let him down. At the opposite end, it was youngster Jae who stood out, both for his nearly error-free play as for his stunning winners off unusual angles.
There were some terrific, fast-paced exchanges in the opening game, and once the Koreans had it sewn up, they were mostly in control in the second. The 21-13 21-16 victory for Choi and Seo meant Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon had a rescue job on her hands.
The Thai however was way below her best, unable to stick in the rallies that Sung forced her into and erring with the fine placements that she is usually masterly at. With a 16-5 lead in the second, Sung was cruising, but some late jitters saw Intanon creep up to within three points before the Korean converted her third match point.
Intanon said nerves had gotten the better of her: “I didn’t feel good at all today, and I was nervous. I had no trouble with injury… it took me a while to find my rhythm, but it was too late by then.”
Korean head coach Kang beamed from ear to ear.
“It is just amazing,” he said. “We’ve made history. This year our team was called weak. At the last minute our senior Men’s Doubles players left the team. We targetted the quarter-final. Now we are so happy. This is my third happiest moment – the first time was when I got married, the second when I got my child. This is the third memorable occasion.
“The last two years have not been good for Korean badminton. Now we’re trying to set up a new generation and looking ahead at Tokyo 2020. ”