Kang Min Hyuk and Seo Seung Jae followed up their win over the Olympic champions by eliminating 3-time World Champions to reach the Malaysia Open semi-finals.

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

Kang Min Hyuk and Seo Seung Jae had their ups and downs last season.  They began their partnership with the best possible outcome, winning the title at their home Super 500 event.  Since then, however, they have only managed a few quarter-final finishes, and even those were overshadowed by a demoralizing string of five first-round losses, beginning with last year’s Malaysia Open.

The one upside to their new partnership has been the success they’ve enjoyed against three-time World Champions Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan.  The Koreans beat the Indonesian aces to reach their first final, in Suncheon last year, and two months later, they beat them again in Jakarta.

Actually, before facing Ahsan and Setiawan on Friday in Kuala Lumpur, Kang and Seo were already on the high produced by a win over Olympic gold medallists Lee Yang and Wang Chi Lin (pictured below), when they seized the advantage with a ten-point run in the first game and clinched it in two straight.

On Friday evening, they got off to a roaring start and looked as if they might finally beat the Indonesians in two straight when they edged in front 17-16 in the second but they finally found themselves in a deciding game, which they ran away with confidently.

After the match, Kang Min Hyuk reflected, “After we won the Korea Open, we had a lot of first-round exits.  We were always under pressure and on the defensive and our defense wasn’t working well.  That took a toll on us mentally and I think that was really getting us down.  But we really focussed in training on improving our defense and I think we got back the confidence in our ability to defend and get back on the attack and that has allowed us to play more positively.”

While there has been a lay-off since they last competed, at the Australian Open, Seo Seung Jae added, “We’ve really been working hard on our weak points and that has meant a lot of training.  We haven’t had any time to rest.”

Asked about the benefit of their new partnership, Kang said, “When I was playing with Kim Won Ho, we used to share attacking responsibilities but I was lacking the speed to do that effectively.  Now, since Seung Jae is so effective in the backcourt, with him attacking at the back, I can concentrate on playing fast to be an effective front-court player and I think that has become a real asset in our matches.”

With the win, Seo Seung Jae was also able to bounce back from a disappointing loss this morning in the mixed doubles: “Of course, losing in the mixed doubles is a disappointment but we’re still going in the men’s so I’m definitely focussed on that now,” he said.  “Mixed is important too but for that there is also the next tournament so for now, we’re concentrating on reaching the top in this event.”

In all three of their wins over Ahsan and Setiawan, the Koreans have taken a one-game lead but have had to clinch the match in a decider.  Kang Min Hyuk explained, “I think that in each match, we’re excited and nervous at the beginning of the match so we play at a very fast pace and our opponents can find it hard to settle into their rhythm.  Then in the second game, the Indonesian pair is really getting into the match, we start to find it difficult to play our game, and all the while our speed starts to lag.  If it goes to a third game, we tend to get our concentration and our speed back and that has produced good outcomes for us.”

Asked if they fancied meeting a Malaysian pair in the semi-final, Seo said, “We played Ong and Teo in the Australian Open too but since then we’ve been working on our weak points.  There may be a lot of fans supporting them but we will still be hoping we can produce a good result.”

Former World Junior Champions back on the way up

Way back in 2018, Baek Ha Na and Lee Yu Lim were already a rising pair in Korean women’s doubles.  They were already reigning Asian and World Junior Champions, looked set to repeat both those titles, and had already been in two Super 300 finals.  Then in June of that year, Lee suffered a knee injury that took her out of the national team for over two years, though she returned to domestic competition in 2019.

The two reunited just over a year ago and celebrated by reaching their first Super 1000 semi-final in Bali.  They followed that up in 2022 with a couple of major tournament finals, and in between did a partner swap with veteran team-mates Lee So Hee and Shin Seung Chan.

Now, the fourth-ranked Korean women’s doubles pair find themselves in the unlikely position of being the last Korean pair standing in the inaugural Super 1000 event of the 2023 season.  They saw their way into the final four with a relatively easy win over Singapore’s Jin/Wong.

After their win, Lee Yu Lim reflected on what she found upon returning to top-level competition: “Since I was injured and off the national team for a few years, I of course found that when I came back, I wasn’t at the level I’d been at before so I’ve really tried build myself up both in terms of stamina and skill.”

Baek Ha Na added, “We were very young when we were partners before Yu Lim got injured so I played with Jung Kyung Eun and also Lee So Hee and I really learned a lot.  I’ve tried to impart some of that to Yu Lim now that we are partners again.  I really feel grateful for all I learned when playing with my elder team-mates and I think we definitely make a good pair but we’re also benefiting from that additional experience.”

Asked if Baek’s improvement was noticeable when they restarted their partnership, Lee said, “Yes, I could tell even when I was watching her, that she was improving so much and now that we’re playing together again, I feel that I’m learning a lot from her.”

Even more recently, Baek and Lee were briefly paired with veterans Lee So Hee and Shin Seung Chan, respectively, for last autumn’s European leg of the BWF World Tour, which Lee Yu Lim said was both a matter of trying out new pairs and also of getting the younger players some experience.”

Baek Ha Na did not express a preference for either of the Chinese pairs to be their semi-final opponents: “To be honest, both pairs will be really tough opponents so we’re aware that it doesn’t really make much difference who we face.  Every match is going to be tough so no matter who we play, as long as we concentrate on playing well in our game, we should be able to produce a good result.”

Baek also claimed that being to sole remaining Koreans did not mean they would be feeling any extra pressure: “We’re just concentrating on doing what we have to do.  In any case, if we allow ourselves to feel pressure, we’re going to have trouble playing with confidence so we have to concentrate on playing to our strengths.

Asked whether they came to the first event of the year thinking they might win the title, Lee Yu Lim said, “The title?  Well, now that we’re here, we’re certainly going to do our best.  It’s only one more win to get to the final and if we can do that, well, our target is certainly to finish on top.”

Click here for complete quarter-final results


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