His passion for gold drove Singapore shuttler Loh Kean Yew to reach one of the pinnacles and he clinched the World Championship title in December 2021 – making him the first Singaporean to win the title and elevated his status from underdog to “the man to beat” on the World Tour circuit.
“There’s always pressure but it comes and goes, not only for me. Looking on from a positive point of view, it is a good thing that everyone is targeting you and watching your every move. It’s how we manage and grow our gameplay,” the 25-year-old tells TheHomeGround Asia.
Unseeded at the tournament, Loh stunned the likes of world number one Viktor Axelsen and world number three Anders Antonsen before beating India’s Kidambi Srikanth in a nail-biting finish to take the crown.
The victory marks the best finish for a Singaporean in any edition of the World Championships.
Loh, who grew up watching Chinese two-time Olympic champion and five-time World champion Lin Dan and Malaysian Olympian Lee Chong Wei, who ranked first worldwide for 349 weeks from 21 August 2008 to 14 June 2012, became world champion on the same world stage. This was despite having rolled his ankle during the quarter-final while trying to save a shuttle.
“I was super happy and busy celebrating the win. It felt like a dream playing in the World Badminton Championship and making a lifelong dream come true,” he says. And this “lifelong dream” took 43 hectic minutes, two games and 78 points to reach.
From backyard badminton to world stage
Loh was only four when he first started playing badminton with his brothers and neighbours in Penang where he lived.
“I started because I thought that it was fun. But I stopped because I was bullied,” he says. And since he had always hero-worshipped older brother Kean Hean and would try to emulate him in whatever he did, he started picking up the racquet again at nine.
“All along I’ve always looked up to my brother Kean Hean and I followed whatever he did. He played badminton so I also wanted to play badminton. I wanted to be as good as him, if not better. That’s the competitive streak in me,” Loh says.
“I started official training when I was 10 then gradually … the passion just grew,” he says, adding that he was in the state team in Penang. That same year, Loh had come to Singapore with older brother Kean Hean, now a national shuttler, to help him warm-up for the trials to gain admission into the Badminton Academy at Singapore Sports School when he was spotted by its general manager Desmond Tan.
According to the Singapore Sports School website, the short 10 minutes during the warm-up with his older brother was enough for Mr Tan to notice his “innate talent in badminton”. So, when he was 12, Mr Tan approached Loh’s mother to have him attend the badminton trials where he “was outstanding” that he was offered a scholarship and was immediately accepted to the programme.
“Also, my parents had wanted me to study and play badminton at the same time, so they wanted a balance of education and sports. That’s why I’m here,” Loh says.
Knowing how talented he is, Loh’s coaches made sure they took care of and guided him in the sport.
“And whenever I made bad decisions, they would guide me along and advise me on how to be a good player. They would tell me how top players actually approach things. For example, they ensured that I was disciplined and didn’t allow me to be tardy, as it is supposed to be. And whenever I was to be late, I would be punished, and then I learnt from that,” he says.
Loh says although he had changed coaches along the way, he sometimes still contacts the previous ones, seeking their expertise and they are usually generous with their time as “they always want me to improve like I always want to improve myself”.
Giving up academia for badminton
Loh’s first major game was the 2015 SEA Games, held in Singapore. It was the first time he experienced what a major competition felt like, and with homeground support that the debutant played well enough that he got into the semi-finals. He was then 18.
That same year, he got his Singapore citizenship “so I could finally represent Singapore. … I was finally excited to play in front of a home crowd”. In his first outing Loh got a bronze medal for the men’s singles.
It was also that same year that Loh told his parents he wanted to give up his studies for badminton.
“My parents wanted me to study and play sports at the same time, so they wanted me to go to the polytechnic and then to university after that, do both at the same time. … So it struck me that it’s very hard to focus on both. That affects my training, and also my studies. In the end I decided that I needed to give up one so I chose sports over studies,” Loh says.
“Definitely, it was a gamble. My parents didn’t really agree to it at first but I explained to them that I didn’t want any regrets or the ‘what ifs’. I told them I would try my best and give my all because sports don’t really wait for anyone, while studies you can always go back later. They eventually understood and allowed me to give up my studies,” he says.
And it was a decision that Loh never looked back on as he moved from wins to wins. And in 2019, his biggest dream came true when he beat childhood idol Lin Dan. After having eliminated four shuttlers from China to qualify for the final of the US$150,000 (S$204,000) Princess Sirivannavari Thailand Masters in Bangkok, Loh faced Lin, beating Chinese badminton legend and world No. 13. He was ranked 129 then.
In his post-match comments, Loh told the on-court interviewer: “It is really an honour to play with him (Lin).”
Staying at the top: Why is it harder than getting there
After placing 18th in the Race to Tokyo men’s singles rankings, Loh qualified for the 2020 Summer Olympics but was eliminated from the Olympics in the group stage in July 2021 when he lost to seventh seed Jonatan Christie of Indonesia in a closely-contested rubber game.
In the Dutch Open in October the same year, Loh won the tournament by prevailing in the finals over top seed Indian player Lakshya Sen. It was Loh’s first tournament victory since 2019, netting S$1,900. Also in October at the French Open, he beat Malaysian Lee Zii Jia but lost to Lakshya Sen. His coach Kelvin Ho said it “was not the first time Kean Yew had let comments on social media or his own expectations get to him”, stating that he told Loh his “mentality wasn’t right” and reminding him to focus on “processes and routines” instead of “what the final result should be”.
Learning his lesson, Loh stayed away from social media at the next few major meets, including a social media blackout during the BWF World Championships later that year. Unseeded, Loh beat Srikanth to take the crown.
“I’m honoured to deliver this first gold for Singapore. I know many Singaporeans have been staying up to follow my progress, and I want to thank everyone for their support and for being a huge motivation. I feel I have improved over the past few months, but I still have a long way to go to be where I want to be, and I will continue to work hard to be even better as I chase my dream of winning an Olympic medal for Singapore,” he said in an interview with The Straits Times.
Loh tells TheHomeGround Asia, “I’m thankful for all the fans around the world, specifically Southeast Asia. I’m quite glad that there are many supporters behind me, which actually motivates me a lot to play better to become a better person on and off the court.”
Loh did not manage to repeat the podium-topping feat since. But his form and performances this season have seen him live up to the billing of reigning champion. Ahead of his world title defence in Japan at the end of August, Loh hopes that the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham could give him a boost to become the first Singaporean to clinch back-to-back world champion titles.
Achieving excellence and staying on top needs intense effort and a set of enabling characteristics that get you to the top and there are always younger players who are stronger and faster, have better training, and higher expectations knocking on the door looking to take your place.
Unfortunately, Loh was toppled both at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the Badminton World Championships (BWC) this month. He was beaten by Malaysia’s Ng Tze Yong in the quarter-finals in Birmingham and ended his reign as world champion on 26 Aug when he lost to a familiar nemesis in the men’s singles quarter-finals – Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn. It was Kunlavut who defeated him at the SEA Games finals in May, leaving him with a silver.
Both times Loh said he gave his all and the losses did not put a damper to his dream. He has not given up his hope to play in the Paris Olympics in 2024.
“I have no regrets because I gave everything on the court,” he said after his loss. “(Kunlavut) was more ready for the third game to control the pace, and that’s something I need to work on. … Overall, I have been playing the best I can. I think I did okay, I’m satisfied with my performance, but definitely there’s a lot more to improve on,” he added.
“I usually prepare match for match, so I always focus on the next match and not think about the future games,” he told TheHomeGround Asia before playing at the BWC.
And to the future Loh Kean Yew in the making, he says, “Dare to dream and dare to go for it. Don’t give up. You only fail when you stop trying. … It’s a dream because it’s a goal that is technically impossible to achieve. We must dream and we will go past our limit and try our best. Once we achieve it, then we can always set new goals and work towards those new dreams.”