Badminton hit by wave from Korea: An Se-Young, remember the name

Was the India Open last Sunday the passing of the baton in women’s singles? A quick recap: after four straight losses in their last few meetings, South Korea’s An Se-Young defeated world champion Akane Yamaguchi, in three clearly demarcated sets of domination. The two have contested 7 finals in their career – Se-Young has won 2 now, both Super 750s at Indonesia Masters earlier before the Indian title. She has lost 5, but crucially beat the super consistent Yamaguchi in the semis on way to the Uber Cup 2022 title.

The asterisk to crowning the Korean as the heir apparent, comes in the form of Chen Yufei who beat Se-Young in the Uber Cup finals. Yufei withdrew from illness last week in New Delhi, and that faceoff never quite materialised. Se-Young has lost 8 and won just 2 against Yufei.

Yet, there was an invisible change of guard moment in that Delhi final, which signals the imminent rise to the top of Se-Young, the 20 year old from Gwangju.

Unlike Ratchanok Intanon, who won the World Championship at 17 ten years ago in 2013 when another shift of power happened – from the Chinese Li Xuerui and Yihan Wang to the rest of the world – An Se hasn’t made inroads into the World’s. However, she has won a bronze at the 2022 edition.

An Se Young pumped up after a win at the 2023 India Open. (AP)

Se-Young’s 5-0 record against PV Sindhu has been worrying, and these faceoffs coincided with the two World’s editions where the Indian didn’t medal – she missed the last from injury. But it is another score-count that makes the Korean’s rise one to be seen with qualities of permanence and maturity.

Se-Young has eaten into Tai Tzu Ying’s impressive record — lost just once and won thrice, which points to her ability to read the deceptive wizard’s rather confounding game.

So, what is Se-Young’s game? Tough to slot because her development has been built like Lego blocks to cover all bases by her coaching team. Korea truly maxed former player Sung Ji Hyun’s career, though it was a classical defensive game with a sprinkling of kill shots and very sparse attacking winners in the form of the power smashes. Sun Ji moved on the court with balletic grace, and constructed points. Se-Young now has Sung Ji Hyun as one of her courtside coaches.

It is said that the Korean coaches firmed up Se-Young’s defense and smoothened out her movements for half a year. She was then given the freedom to explore and sharpen her attacking flair and fierceness for further six months – paying no heed to results.

As a result, Se-Young has the complete set of tricks, to be able to counter all styles of play – be it Ratchanok or Tai Tzu Ying’s deception or Sindhu and Marin’s furious attack or Yamahuchi’s counter punching ways. Both the Chinese though kept negotiating her rather easily, and it remains to be seen how long Yufei can stave off the youngster.

At the India Open, more than the victory over Yamaguchi, it was Se-Young’s defeat of He Bingjiao that was two steps forward in her journey. As such both the semifinals and final victories were similar in their contours. Se-Young gauged her opponents in the opener, dropping the first set. What changed in both matches in the mid set was her varying the speed expertly, making use of the conditions. The precise moment was captured in a rally against Yamaguchi.

Sensing that the tide was in a flux though not quite turned, Yamaguchi amped up the pace from her end, bolstering with a revved up shoulder and quick hand speed as she attacked with relentless assertion. Se-Young though kept her cool, and insisted on slowing down the pace from her end, defending steadily yet slicing at the returns and consciously holding the shuttle back before it crossed the net.

It was this odd rally where Yamaguchi tried her best to push the pace, while Se-Young stayed unflappable and slow that turned the tide as the prolonged exchange and sluggish shuttle frustrated the Japanese. Unafraid to retrieve through the long punishing rallies – she ended up lying on her back after one particular scorcher – but the Korean would insist she came in prepared for battle in the decider.

Both were playing on the 10th day of two back to back tournaments – Malaysia and India. But while Yamaguchi going for her second title wilted and gave in to impatience with errors accumulating, Se-Young got progressively better and more accurate as the match wore on.

It is this ability to be mentally fresh for a third set – in these days pretty inevitable – that Se-Young could end up bettering many of her contemporaries – older than her, and with fitness niggles.

Both Bing jiao and Yamaguchi were less sharp for that Set 3 fight, and Se-Young could toy with the inter-rally pace, with her decelerations. Whether faster courts and flying shuttles can stop her remains to be seen, especially when Marin or Sindhu get going.

As such, she is versatile and though predominantly defensive, Se-Young can switch to attack at the snap of a finger. Accuracy is her forte, and against the likes of Sindhu, she can carry out gameplans by completely cramping the Indian for space and lengths to hit.

With most of the Top Tenners in their late-ish 20s, Se-Young who broke through while still a teen, has the years on her side. Not many in her age-group besides her have made the Top 10 leap. The younger Chinese will inherit successful gameplans, but haven’t been as effective in beating her, which means Yufei and an untired Yamaguchi remain the only challengers, with Bingjiao in the mix too. Marin is still a few paces off her peak game-shape, and it will be intriguing to see how she approaches the Se-Young challenge.

The India Open win though, might’ve unwittingly witnessed the passing of the baton, though Yamahuchi’s unrequited Tokyo dream might extend to her streamlining her program to reorient on solely Paris Games rather than winning at every port of call on the circuit and burning out early in the season. The Japanese can match Se-Young, but back to back weeks can trip her up, like it happened in Delhi. As it disassembles in the next few years, women’s singles and its golden generation might’ve well found its shining bauble to top the ring, the K-Drama and manga loving Se-Young.

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