COMMENT: Loh Kean Yew learnt to seize the moment, can Lions do the same?
SINGAPORE — The refrain of Eminem's rap classic "Lose Yourself" goes, "You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime."
Indeed, so much of what was enthralling about Loh Kean Yew's ascension to sporting greatness on Sunday (19 December) was because he was seizing his one chance, his one opportunity to become badminton's world champion.
All last week in the Spanish city of Huelva, the unseeded Singaporean grabbed the initiative at every crucial point in his matches against some of the world's best shuttlers at the BWF World Championships. If he was in the lead, he kept up his pressure. If he was trailing, he chased down every shot.
Even if he was aware that powerhouse nations China and Indonesia both withdrew their key men's singles players and presented a less intimidating path to success, he still had to defeat six players who were similarly feeling good about their chances, from the first round to the final.
Which was why Loh's eventual triumph was so gloriously immense; not once did he falter against opposition posing all sorts of challenges on the court. He came, he saw, and he conquered, with an infectious momentum that swept Singapore to its collective feet and single-handedly lifted his sport from years of mediocrity.
It is why his triumph in Huelva is now being talked about in the same breath as Joseph Schooling's Olympic gold-winning swim in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 as Singapore's greatest sporting moments.
Just as Schooling swam his greatest race at his biggest moment, Loh showcased his most complete game throughout the prestigious tournament. This is what it takes to create unprecedented sporting history for the country.
Dramatic improvement in game management
Yet, to local sports journalists who had tracked Loh since he began representing Singapore in the mid-2010s, his world championship-winning temperament was hardly evident, even as recently as August's Tokyo Olympics.
There, he faced a must-win match against reigning Asian Games champion, Indonesia's Jonatan Christie, and stretched his rival to three sets. Yet in the vital passages of the match, he was undone by his hastiness to put Christie away, as careless errors and rushed shots piled up to hand the Indonesian the victory.
"Definitely disappointed with how I handled the key moments," he told Yahoo News Singapore right after the dispiriting loss.
Such inadequate game management then was symptomatic of Loh's nascent professional career. He would be excellent in patches, but could not control his emotions during the most intense moments against top opponents.
So it was a welcome surprise to see him being in supreme control at the World Championships, never rushing his rallies, and always picking the right spots to use his lightning-quick reflexes to bamboozle his opponents. It was as if he was a totally different player from the one who stumbled at the Tokyo Games.
Many, including Loh himself, have attributed his stunning progress to the one-month training stint in Dubai with Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen right after Tokyo. While he has yet to elaborate on how he arrived at his "Eureka" moment, one can infer that weeks of sparring with someone who had just scaled the Olympic pinnacle gave him plenty of insight on finding that extra edge to outdo his opponents.
It was a fortuitous break for Loh to be chosen by the Dane as his training partner, but to piece together all his training insights in such a short time was what made his breakthrough so special.
Again, it is that elusive quality of seizing the moment and not letting it go. And when Loh stunned his mentor in the opening round of the World Championships, the student had overcome the teacher in a delicious side-story to his success.
Underdogs like Lions need to believe, just like Loh did
Amid this glorious triumph, what can Singapore sports glean from Loh's title-winning journey?
If anything, it shows that even underdogs need to believe they can win. With a modest world No.22 ranking, Loh was frequently the lower-ranked player compared to his opponents on his road to glory; Axelsen (world No.1), Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen (world No.20), Anders Antonsen (world No.3) and Kidambi Srikanth (world No.14) were all favoured to defeat the Singaporean.
Yet, Loh was able to be confident in his ability to win. Certainly his superb form going into the World Championships was vital, but to maintain his belief, even when his opponents had taken the lead, takes a strong disposition to make it count when it mattered.
One team that could benefit immediately from having more belief are the Singapore national football team, who are currently in the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup tournament.
Like Loh, the Lions are showing signs of improvement from their moribund mid-2010s, when they failed to reach the Suzuki Cup semi-finals for three consecutive editions. Three victories from four group-stage matches so far is proof that they are finally putting together a playing style that could bring eventual success under head coach Tatsuma Yoshida.
But it is that single loss that is causing much consternation. Firstly, it came at the hands of regional kingpins Thailand, whom the Lions have not beaten since 2012. Secondly, the Thais trotted out a second-string side to rest their best players ahead of the knockout stage. And finally, the Lions began on the front foot, but failed to find the crucial opening goal, before succumbing to two clinical strikes against the run of play as Thailand won 2-0.
A moment which should have been seized upon as a statement of intent instead fizzled out in another disappointing defeat. And Yoshida became upset when he heard that fans had booed his team after the final whistle, cutting his media conference short as he emotionally implored fans that they "must believe" in their national football team.
While it was harsh to jeer a Lions side who have already met their tournament objective and made encouraging strides to be competitive in the region again, one also wished they had seized the golden opportunity against the Thais to prove that they have what it takes to beat them.
Such a victory would have given the team a huge lift amid their slow revival as regional contenders. More importantly, it would definitely make the Lions fans believe. Mere exhortations are unconvincing to these fans who have suffered through the last decade; they want clear proof.
Thankfully for the Lions, they have another chance to get the fans on their side. Beat the high-scoring Indonesia in the two-legged Suzuki Cup semi-final this week, and they may yet turn boos into resounding cheers at the National Stadium.
But they have to seize this opportunity with conviction, just like Loh did at the World Championships.
Loh has shown the way to get an entire nation on his side, with his utter belief in his ability to beat higher-ranked opponents. If every player in the Lions squad can show similar will to make it count on the biggest football stage in the region, then perhaps they could yet subdue the rampant Indonesians.
If they need more help in believing, they can always play that Eminem refrain in the dressing room before taking to the big stage.
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