Badminton: Singapore's next generation of shuttlers tipped to be 'world class'

Badminton: Singapore's next generation of shuttlers tipped to be 'world class'

Yeo Jia Min and Loh Kean Yew
20-year-old Yeo Jia Min (left) and 21-year-old Loh Kean Yew are currently Singapore's highest ranked singles badminton players. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

SINGAPORE: During one of her family vacations many years ago, Mrs Judy Yeo had concerns that her young daughter would smash up the hotel room.

Not because she was mischievous by nature, but because of the badminton racket that her daughter Jia Min had taken along.

"We went to Taiwan, and she brought her racket ... She was hitting the wall (with a shuttlecock) and I was like so afraid she would break the glass and the mirror," said Mrs Yeo.

From there we knew that she really loved the game and as parents, we support her all the way." 

Years later, the 20-year-old continues to stash a racket in her luggage during holidays - such is her devotion to the sport.

"When we go for holidays, if she sees that there's a gym, she would go, if not she will just do her own running. Her racket travels with her," said her mother.

"As sportsmen and women, our job has got to do with our bodies - taking care of our bodies, to make sure we are injury-free," Yeo added. 

"Even if we are on holiday, we still not really on holiday."

It is this determination to hone her craft that has seen Yeo rise through the ranks to become Singapore's top-ranked female shuttler.

"I enjoy doing sports, so I don’t think its a sacrifice," said Yeo, currently 32nd in the world. 

"I enjoy going to training, I enjoy constantly improving myself. I still enjoy it now and I thank God that I do because it is what I do every day."

From the wide-eyed seven-year-old who would pester her parents for a game of badminton, Yeo is now the battle-hardened 20-year-old who her coach believes could be one of the "rising stars" in the badminton world.

"Jia Min still needs to grow in terms of game plan and her winning mentality has to be more consistent," said national singles' coach Kelvin Ho. 

"We have to very patient with her but she has the potential to become one of the few rising stars in the senior circuit."

Yeo's journey started on the badminton courts of Assumption English School, where she would watch the shuttlecock whiz back and forth as her parents and their friends enjoyed a casual game.

"When we finished our match and then we wanted to rest, she would be calling us to play with her," said her mother. "Because our age, we could be playing all the time - we needed the time between breaks to rest. 

"We saw one coach there and we sent her to the coach. That’s how it started ... We just packed her off, it wasn’t like intentional, like get her started on proper training. We just wanted her not to bug us!"

While other children would scamper off after their training sessions, Yeo would sit by the sidelines, absorbing how others played the game.

"The coach told me that this child, there is something different he sees," explained Mrs Yeo. "She would ask the coach how to do this and how to do that, the coach would say not yet - that’s like another level."

It turned out that Yeo had a knack for the game, and within months, she was competing in a local competition.

And in 2017, at the age of 18, the Singapore Sports School graduate climbed all the way to the top of the Badminton World Federation (BWF)'s world junior rankings.

Yeo Jia Min
Yeo Jia Min poses for a photograph. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

"What has not changed from the day she picked up the racket is her love for the game, her determination, her discipline. It’s in her," said Mrs Yeo. 

"It wasn’t which something we had to encourage - to go for training, wake up early. It’s really her love for the game."

Having made the jump to the senior circuit, Yeo has set for herself a number of "small goals" which she hopes to achieve in the months to come. These include improving on her game play and physicality.

"I think everything needs to start from small progress," she said. "People will give expectations based on our performance, definitely everybody would want to improve their best and get a medal at every games. 

"Specifically, I hope to break through to the top 15 in the world by this year or before the Olympics."

YOUNG AND DANGEROUS

Yeo is not the only weapon in Singapore's badminton arsenal. 

Ranked 48th in the world, 21-year-old Loh Kean Yew is currently the Republic's highest ranked men's shuttler.

The boyish Loh made headlines for beating two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan in the Thailand Masters finals in January, but wants to move on from that result.

"It's been quite a big hoo-ha, even though it was not that big of a thing," he said.

Looking long-term, Loh is keen to reiterate that he still has the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in his sights.

"It's not going to be easy because the Olympics' men's singles qualification is extremely competitive," said Loh. "I have to work towards qualifying first."

Yeo Jia Min and Loh Kean Yew 2
Both 20-year-old Yeo Jia Min (right) and 21-year-old Loh Kean Yew have what it takes to be "world class", said national singles coach Kelvin Ho. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

As part of the national set-up, Yeo and Loh frequently travel abroad for competitions and give each other input on their performance on the court. This helps them improve their game play, said Loh.

"We are always encouraging each other," he said. "If she watches me play, she'll tell me what I did wrong. If I watch hers, I would do the same."

Next up for Yeo is the Singapore Open, where she is slated to face Indonesia's Ruselli Hartawan on Wednesday (Apr 10). 

Her compatriot Loh failed to make it past the qualification round on Tuesday, having lost to Hong Kong's Lee Cheuk Yiu 21-16, 21-17.

"I'm definitely disappointed but I have to keep learning," said Loh. 

"I'm quite sad that I can't get to play more matches in front of the home crowd but I have to work harder."

Regardless of what happens at the star-studded Singapore Open which will see the likes of Lin and women's world number one Tai Tzu Ying compete, both players still have a role to play as Singapore's shuttlers battle to gain a foothold on the fiercely competitive global scene.

"The future is exciting for Singapore badminton and they will be role models for younger players to follow," said coach Ho. 

"Both of them have what it takes to be world class, but they have to grow up mentally compared to the top players, and learn how to manage themselves on and off court better."

He'll be pleased to note that neither of the duo have any plans to rest on their laurels.

"I still have a long way to go," said Loh.

As for Yeo, she said there is still so much to do and achieve in her sport. "I can’t be satisfied with what I have achieved," she said. 

Source: CNA/mt(rw)

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