Kim Won Ho and Jeong Na Eun paired up to take the Olympic mixed doubles gold medallists out of the running at the 2023 Malaysia Open.

Story: Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent live in Kuala Lumpur
Photos: Yves Lacroix and Erika Sawauchi for Badmintonphoto (live)

Korean shuttlers found themselves with and against the crowd in the opening matches on Day 3 of the Malaysia Open Super 1000.  Women’s singles star An Se Young had Goh Jin Wei and a home crowd to contend with but after she prevailed, Kim Won Ho and Jeong Na Eun enjoyed the vocal support of the Kuala Lumpur crowd for the thrilling finish to their 74-minute battle with China’s Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping.

Korea is one of the few top badminton teams without dedicated mixed doubles specialists.  Apart from Chae Yu Jung and the occasionally seen veteran Eom Hye Won, all of their mixed doubles players are at least as busy with level doubles at the top tournaments.  That hasn’t stopped them from rising to the occasion with upsets and even titles, as they are quite capable of troubling the best in the world.

Kim Won Ho and Jeong Na Eun came to Kuala Lumpur just over a month after reaching their first major final together in Australia.  But facing Olympic champions Wang and Huang in the second round, they surprised no one when they seemed outclassed in the opening game and scored a mere 12 points.

The tide began to change in the second game when they came out firing after the interval with 7 unanswered points that put them into the lead and gave them a realistic chance.  The Chinese still managed a match point but the Koreans held on and scored three in a row to force the decider.

The Chinese pair again opened up an 11-7 lead at the change of ends but the Koreans kept applying the pressure, with stellar defense and relentless attacking from Kim Won Ho at the back.  The rallies grew fast and furious as the game went into extra points, with Wang Yilyu smashing his racquet clear across the diagonal of his own court and having to go scrambling after it to continue the rally.

Kim and Jeong finally closed it out 23-21 on their second match point opportunity.

“It felt great playing today,” said Kim Won Ho after the win.  “We were able to play the way we wanted to and all the way to the end, we felt we were able to make it go our way.”

“I felt that my defending was good today but I was able to count on Won Ho at the back and just take my chances with the loose shuttles in the frontcourt,” said Jeong Na Eun, “but Won Ho was playing so well that I think that’s what allowed us to win.”

Kim Won Ho added, “I think the fact that we defended well was the reason we were able to create so many attacking opportunities.”

The Koreans denied that their defensive performance was the result of a focus in training, explaining that they haven’t actually had much opportunity to train together as a mixed pair due to both focussing on their level doubles partnerships.

“It feels a little funny to progress here in mixed doubles.  We didn’t really expect to get this far but I think not having the expectations might have helped us to take the win,” said Kim Won Ho, who admitted the pair hadn’t really paid much attention to the draw.

On the support the Koreans got from the crowd during their push at the end of the match, Kim said, “We also felt that the crowd got behind us in the difficult stages so that felt really good.  We always feel that when we come to play here.”

Kim and Jeong advance to meet Dejan Ferdinansyah / Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja in the quarter-final.  It was a victory of the Indonesians in Australia that put the Koreans into their first ever final as a pair and they will be hoping for more success on Friday in Kuala Lumpur.

An Se Young extends her KL winning streak to 7

While her team-mates were still struggling to get into their match on Thursday morning, An Se Young was two courts over, breaking the hearts of the local fans by seeing off Malaysia’s own Goh Jin Wei in straight games.  Goh looked to be full of confidence a day earlier, against Yvonne Li of Germany, but taking on the world #5 was a completely different sort of challenge.

In fact, on An’s last trip to Kuala Lumpur, she beat Chen Yufei for the Malaysia Masters title and she played true to her reputation as she glided around the court and forced Goh to move to all four corners.  An Se Young did take her attacking opportunities but when Goh countered with solid defensive blocks, the Korean stayed patient and was content to let the rallies continue until she could seize the advantage.

Asked whether having won the Malaysia Masters gave her increased confidence coming into this tournament, An said, “Moreso than giving me confidence, I think having won here before means that I can relax in my approach to the tournament, knowing that I already have the experience of winning.  It means that it’s even easier to focus on one match at a time and on doing my best.”

Asked whether her excellent court movement matched how she felt on court, An said, “I don’t think I felt particularly light on my feet but I was able to open up a lead and that allowed me to play without any fear or tension and I could dictate the pace of the rallies.  But if I appear to be light on my feet I’d say that’s really a good thing,” she said with a chuckle.

To find the last time these two players faced one another, one has to go way back to the 2017 World Junior Mixed Team Championships.  At the time, An was still in middle school and played both singles and mixed, taking an under-strength Korean team to the semi-finals while the high school stars were busy with a concurrent domestic event: “At that time at the World Juniors, Goh Jin Wei was really powerful and moved so fast and she just completely outplayed me.  But since then, she has struggled with injuries and it looks difficult for her to keep up.”

An Se Young was supported courtside by both Sung Ji Hyun and by Rony Agustinus of Indonesia, who joined the Korean coaching staff this past October.  “Our new coach is dividing his time between working with men’s singles and women’s singles.  We haven’t had that long to adjust.  I’m not familiar with his coaching style and he is not yet familiar with me as a player but with time, I think we’ll be able to adjust.

“We had some time off from competition but starting this week we have so many events so that has meant a lot of training to prepare.  This is the first tournament of the year and of course it would be really nice to do well.  Of course, I am always hoping to win the title but if I keep playing well at each stage, I think it’s possible I could take the title.”

Click here for complete Thursday results


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