From fanboy to beating the favourite: Singapore's badminton sensation is just getting started

From fanboy to beating the favourite: Singapore's badminton sensation is just getting started

Now that Loh Kean Yew has beaten five-time world champion Lin Dan, the 21-year-old Singapore shuttler has got bigger ambitions. 

SINGAPORE: At one point during the battle between pretender and contender, even the television commentator is left flabbergasted.

“How did that happen? How? No way! Please show us a replay of that,” pleads the man on the mic.

Turn back the clock five seconds, and the smash has the precision of a metronome and the brute force of a sledgehammer. Its target? The backhand of a back-pedaling opponent.

Lin Dan is on the hunt. 

He is a two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion, but is about to finish one-time loser to an unheralded qualifier.

For although Lin's shot would be a killer blow against most opponents, Singapore's Loh Kean Yew is on the other side of the net.

He flicks his return. The shuttlecock drops, the crowd roars, the commentators shout their disbelief and Kean Yew pumps his fist. 

Three years ago, Kean Yew would have considered himself lucky to have snapped a photo with Lin, let alone shared the same court. 

But somehow, at the Thailand Masters final, the fan stunned the favourite.

THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

Born in Malaysia but groomed in Singapore, Kean Yew's victory over "Super" Dan has seen an online tussle among netizens for ownership of the young giant-killer.

Chendol, nasi lemak - and now add Loh Kean Yew to the list. Not that he is too bothered by it.

"I just find it very funny – every time I read these comments I just laugh," said Kean Yew. "I’m just playing and I just want to win.

"Both Singapore and Malaysia are important, and have played a very big part in my growth."

The 21-year-old has come a long way from a kid who would use the gate outside his home as a net when playing badminton.

"I remember that around the age of four, I would play at the front gate with my brothers," Kean Yew recalled. "My neighbour would play with us. When I was young he would let us win and gave one of his medals. 

"It was actually a swimming medal but I was young and didn’t know what it was. I was just happy to get a medal."

But it wasn't long before the precocious youngster was winning competitions for real.

"When my mother came to pick up my older brother Kean Hean from badminton practice, I would be the one going to tell him it was time to go home," said Kean Yew, who was eight at the time. "It would seem like they were having a lot of fun and the players would ask me when I would join them.

"Once I started playing, I starting winning and was more focused. At the age of 10, that academy had a competition which I won. After a few months, there was a zonal competition which I also won. I played in the state competition and reached the semi-final– there was one every year, and that was my first official tournament."

Loh Kean Yew
Kean Yew is Singapore's newest sporting sensation. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

But at the age of 13, it was time for a move across the Causeway. Convinced by the parents of another Penang-born shuttler Terry Hee, Kean Yew's parents first tried to enroll his older brother in the Singapore Sports School.

"Terry and my brother are the same age, they were badminton partners and (our families are) quite close," said Kean Yew. "Terry came over to Singapore to study first (and) after one year here, his parents told mine that the Sports School was not bad and they could try sending Kean Hean there."

Kean Hean eventually wound up studying at Montfort Secondary School but it was Kean Yew who received a scholarship the following year after catching the eye of the Sports School's coach.

"The first two weeks were very fun because there were no parents," said Kean Yew with a laugh. "But I missed home - I cried by myself for a few nights before calling my mum and crying some more.

"But after that night where I let my emotions out, I stopped crying and calling - until my mum had to call me!"

Despite a grueling schedule of training sessions, lessons, more training sessions and then supervised study time, Kean Yew thrived in his new environment. 

"I want to really thank the Sports School, they are really part of my growth," he said. "I was a foreigner but almost everybody took care of me very well."

Having his older brother around also helped, added Kean Yew.

"It was very important have somebody who understands what you are going through," he said. "He would send me to school when it was time to check in (Kean Yew was boarding at the school). I don’t really know how to go there alone and was scared to go back. He sent me from Sengkang to Woodlands and would go back by himself."

Both Kean Hean and Kean Yew would eventually become Singapore citizens several years later.

"It wasn't easy making the decision as I would be away from my parents, but for our education and career, coming to Singapore was necessary," Kean Yew said. 

"I have no regrets coming here, becoming a Singaporean and serving National Service. I have spent many years here and I feel like a Singaporean. And I’m proud to wear the Singapore flag on my chest."

But serving National Service did not come without sacrifices, revealed Kean Yew.

"Sometimes, I could only train once a week," he said. "Its quite tough because my 'feel' will be gone ... You lose your touch ... It's hard to train during NS. But I made up my mind that badminton is more important to me. So any free time I had when I booked out, instead of meeting my friends, I would rush to train. Badminton is my life."

But a three-month stint with Denmark's Langhoj Badminton Club after Kean Yew had reached his operationally ready date (ORD) in October last year meant that he sharpened his skills and expanded his arsenal.

"The club members trained very seriously, they don’t give up on shots, they chiong (go) for everything and always try to learn new things," he said. "We would talk after we played and find out how we did different things."

But Kean Yew's biggest takeaway came from four days of training with the Danish national team.

"I saw how they trained, how intensive it was and how focused they were. They may fool around but when its time to train, they take it really seriously," he said. 

A chance conversation with former world number one Viktor Axelsen would also see Kean Yew glean a valuable pearl of wisdom.

Loh Kean Yew (3)
Kean Yew was a bronze medalist in the men's singles and doubles at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

"I asked him about how he handled pressure. He told me you shouldn’t care what others say, because they are not in your shoes, and you can’t stop them from saying what they say," recalled Kean Yew.

THE 'UNBEATABLE' LIN

Axelsen's words would come back to resonate with Kean Yew after his upset of Lin at the Thailand Masters final on Jan 13.

The youngster had slayed some major opponents en route to the final, including Wang Tzu Wei, ranked 28th in the world, and Brice Leverdez, ranked 27th. 

“Nobody expected me to win and I didn’t expect my win. So I just played without pressure,” said Kean Yew.

His last obstacle would be a man Kean Yew had admired for a long time. He'd even asked for a photograph with the Chinese superstar several years ago when they ran into each other at the Singapore Open.

“I thought: 'Wow! I get to play with Lin Dan.' I always want to play with the top-level players. I've watched him and Lee Chong Wei since young – I only know the two of them," said Kean Yew. "He seemed really unbeatable."

But to Kean Yew's surprise, he could take on Lin.

Down 19-14 in the first game, Kean Yew reeled off point after point to win 21-19.

"I never think that I would make a comeback, I just took it point by point," he said. "I was also shocked by the points I was making, I thought he’d be able to get those shots."

Down again in the second game, Kean Yew pressed and pressed. 

"I told myself not to think so much, even during the last point I didn’t want to think and lose focus," he added.

Nervous anticipation turned into boundless jubilation when Kean Yew won the second game 21-18.

"I was just happy, so happy," said Kean Yew, recalling that landmark moment. "I called my mother after that and she was very happy. But I couldn’t really hear what she was saying because she was with friends in a car and they all were screaming about the win!"

HIGH HOPES, LOFTY GOALS

His Instagram followers may have swelled to more than 10,000 and some have now begun to recognise him on the street, but level-headed Kean Yew is already looking at his next step.

First up will be Singapore National Open Championships from Jan 26 to Feb 1. Among other tournaments, he will also feature in the Singapore Open in April.

"I would like to perform well because those will be on my home ground and I'd like to win something for Singapore," he said.

"At the end of this year there will be SEA Games and next year there’s the Olympics … It would my first time going to the Olympics and I would be an underdog. But I want to get some results - hopefully medal and go as far as possible. I want to make the best out of it.

"If you set a goal low, once you reach the goal, you’ll feel satisfied and won't want to go any higher."

In the days and months to come, the nation’s newest crop of shuttlers will spar under the bright lights of the Singapore Sports School’s huge training centre.

As with any other routine session, shuttlecocks will bounce off racquets, instructions will bounce off the four walls and staring down on the students will be glossy posters of some of the game’s biggest superstars - including a certain Lin Dan.

"I always looked up to those players. I always wanted my face to be there," recalled Kean Yew. 

After his headline-grabbing victory, he's on the road to achieving that ambition.

Source: CNA/mt

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