SINGAPORE — Is he a modestly-talented shuttler who peaked at the perfect time to land one of badminton's biggest prizes, and is still learning how to deal with being an elite player?
Or is he a lucky winner in a weakened field, whose limited talents got found out as the top stars return after the COVID-19 pandemic?
How you feel about Loh Kean Yew's eight-month reign as world champion depends on whether you believe that he can continue to improve in the coming years, or that he cannot be any better than what he is right now.
While we can argue over his greatness when put against the long list of illustrious badminton stars, what is pretty much undebatable is his place in Singapore sporting history.
Loh stands alongside Olympic swimming gold medallist Joseph Schooling as the only athletes to have scaled the pinnacles of two of the most popular sports in the city-state in the past decade. His name will forever be etched into Singapore's sporting fabric.
With that out of the way, we can take a look back at his reign as world champion, and debate if he overachieved or underperformed over the past eight months.
Winning world title not just down to sheer luck
In retrospect, Loh's monumental triumph in the Spanish city of Huelva last December was like a bolt from the blue. Even though he had been in the form of his life since October, no one believed that he could win the big prize.
A look at the men's singles World Championships winners of the past decade shows only world No.1 players - China's Lin Dan (2013) and Chen Long (2014, 2015), Denmark's Viktor Axelsen (2017) and Japan's Kento Momota (2018, 2019).
Loh's world ranking when he won the title? No.22.
Here's where his detractors would chime in with the fact that the 2021 edition was decimated by withdrawals: of the injured Momota, as well as of the entire Indonesian contingent due to the country's travelling restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Loh got lucky that his path to the world title was far easier than past editions, they would say.
In reality, he should have been knocked out in the first round, as he was given the toughest possible opening-round draw: against his mentor and world No.1 Axelsen.
The Dane - who invited Loh to train with him in Dubai after last August's Tokyo Olympics - had already defeated his protege in the prestigious Indonesia Open final two weeks before the World Championships, and was expected to dominate the men's singles field.
Yet, Loh stunned Axelsen in three games, restricting him to single-digit scores in the final two. That set the tone for his improbable march towards the title win, as he did not drop another game in his next five matches.
Even with the weakened field, Loh had to be at the top of his game consistently. It cannot be just down to sheer luck for him to win six top-tier matches in a space of a week - with five of those against elite players ranked higher than him.
His world title win in Huelva was undoubtedly legit.
Consistently in the top 10 even though titles dry up
After that momentous triumph, however, came nothing.
Loh could not win another title on the BWF World Tour. And at the SEA Games and Commonwealth Games this year, he came up short in his bid to land the coveted gold medals despite the limited fields.
This was when the criticisms were at the loudest. Loh's world title win was a fluke. He is not a top shuttler. He cannot hold a candle to Axelsen or Momota or Lin Dan.
To be fair, Loh has had a few disappointing outings. The opening-round defeats at the All-England Championships and the Malaysia Open were deflating; the quarter-final exit at the recent Commonwealth Games was unexpected; and the limp loss in the SEA Games final would have hurt a lot.
Occasionally, his major weakness - carelessness in key points due to his eagerness to win - would also re-emerge and cost him dearly in tight matches.
To those who merely follow the results, it seems a steep fall from success for Loh. And it must seem to them that he was unable to replicate his World Championships form with any regularity. And so they deemed him as a "one-hit wonder".
They're also wrong, once anyone delves deeper into his career progress this year.
Since the start of 2022, Loh has nestled comfortably in the top 10 of the world rankings. Currently at a career-best world No.8, it is already a massive improvement from his world No.40 ranking a year ago.
He has also generally progressed until the later stages of the tournaments he entered. And when he lost, it was usually to higher-ranked players, such as Chou Tien-chen (world No.4) at the Indonesia Masters; Lee Zii Jia (No.5) at the Indonesia Open; and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (No.6) at the Singapore Open.
Against opponents ranked outside of the top 20, Loh could usually dispatch them comfortably - a sure sign of progress from the previous years of his career.
Adjustments to game, as he is no longer an underdog
Of course, to those who followed Loh's career only from his World Championships triumph, it would seem as he is unable to return to those glorious heights.
But here's the thing: Loh has never declared himself as the finished product, even after winning the world title.
In fact, in his first press conference upon returning from Huelva, he said, "Compared to the top players like Viktor (Axelsen) and (Kento) Momota, there's a lot more that I can learn from them... This is just a new beginning for me."
For someone who has been playing the underdog for much of his career, Loh has also had to deal with being a targeted player. Everyone wants to beat the world champion, and he has had to make major adjustments to his match temperament, as well as add more shot variety to his arsenal, in order to stay ahead of the pack.
"I can't go back to being an underdog anymore," was his blunt admission to this journalist of his current standing in badminton.
It is undoubtedly a steep learning curve that has been thrusted on him with that world title win, and on occasions, he seemed weary and deflated by the constant pressure to excel. No one said the weight of the world title was easy to bear.
Yet by and large, he has stayed true to his desire to continue improving his game, to rebound from the defeats, and to keep finding that extra edge.
Humble and grounded despite reaching pinnacle
And now, he is no longer the world champion, after being ousted by Thailand's world No.17 Kunlavut Viditsarn - the same player who defeated him resoundingly in the SEA Games final - in the quarter-finals of the World Championships in Tokyo on Friday (26 August).
Eight months of being in constant spotlight, with the public following and commenting on his every result even as he tried to rework his game, the intense pressure on Loh is something few among us have ever experienced.
Being an unexpected winner of the world title, he was under no illusion that he was less prepared than the previous winners to handle his moment in the intense spotlight. He has had a target on his back at every round of every tournament, with every rival eager to beat a reigning world champion.
Yet, that easy smile never left him. The gung-ho attacking spirit remains evident in every match. And despite taking tough losses all year, he was back smashing winners in another tournament a week or two later.
These are signs of someone who has stayed humble and grounded despite reaching the peak of his sport. With his pop-idol looks, Loh could have sat back and watch the sponsorships and endorsements roll in. But no, he buckled down to spend more hours in training to retool his game.
He may have been a world champion, but there was never a moment when he believed he was the best in the world. Despite already writing his name into sporting history, the hard work continues on for Loh.
Even if Loh never reaches those heights of December 2021 again, he has already shown how to be a classy champion and a role model for all aspiring athletes. His attitude under the burden of the world title has been exemplary.
It shouldn't be hard to stop nit-picking on his results, and get behind this likeable young man for the rest of his badminton career.
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 19 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.
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