SINGAPORE — From world No.41 to world beater, Loh Kean Yew's extraordinary two-month form has landed him one of the biggest prizes in badminton. From now on, he will be remembered as a world champion.
The 24-year-old had already rewritten sporting history repeatedly these past few days - from first Singaporean medallist to first Singaporean finalist at the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Championships.
On Sunday (19 December), he became Singapore's first world champion after a 21-15, 22-20 victory in the men's singles final over India's world No.14 Kidambi Srikanth in 43 exhilarating minutes in Huelva, Spain.
Despite falling behind in both sets to the more experienced Srikanth, Loh managed to inch his way back with exceptional reflexes and wily shot-making. As Srikanth's errors crept up, Loh kept his cool to put the former world No.1 away.
As he roared in delight and fell to his knees at his monumental achievement, it marked the culmination of a barely-believable surge in form from October onwards, in which he made a nonsense out of his modest world No.22 ranking by beating six top-10 players, including two world No.1s in Japan's Kento Momota and Denmark's reigning Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen.
Superb run after training stint with Olympic champion
The superb run, which ironically began after Axelsen invited him to train together in Dubai for a month after the Tokyo Olympics in August, started with two modest titles in Europe - the Dutch Open in October and then the Hylo Open in Germany a month later, which was his biggest career title win before the World Championships.
Then came last month's Indonesia Open, a prestigious BWF World Tour Super 1000-level tournament which offered a big prize purse. Loh began the competition by stunning Momota, and made it all the way to the final before succumbing to Axelsen in three sets.
The Singaporean earned US$28,900 (S$39,500) for his runner-up showing, but he was not done with his stellar year-end yet, as he headed to Spain for the World Championships. And he immediately turned the tables on Axelsen, who had taken over Momota at as the world No.1.
Buoyed by the win over his mentor, Loh followed up with impressive straight-set victories over Austria's Luka Wraber, Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen, India's HS Prannoy and finally Denmark's world No.3 Anders Antonsen in Saturday's semi-finals.
Amid this form surge, his world ranking also rose rapidly from No.41 on 5 October to a career-high No.20 on 30 November, before a slight drop to his current No.22. He is expected to catapult into the top 10 following his World Championships exploits.
Arrived on scholarship, stayed on to develop career
Born in Penang in 1997, Loh arrived in Singapore in 2010 on a scholarship by the Singapore Sports School. His older brother Kean Hean, who also represents the city-state as a doubles specialist, had arrived a year earlier, enrolling at Montfort Secondary School.
Despite being away from his parents, Loh continued his studies initially at Republic Polytechnic, before deciding to quit to pursue a professional badminton career. Both he and his brother eventually became Singapore citizens after completing their national services.
He already owns five SEA Games medals, although none are gold. He earned a men's singles silver medal at the 2019 Games in the Philippines, where he lost to childhood friend Lee Zii Jia of Malaysia in the final. He also has four bronzes.
He also earned his first professional title in 2019 at the Thailand Masters, where he sensationally defeated China great Lin Dan in the final to claim the US$150,000 event.
And now it has come full circle: Loh is the first unseeded men's singles winner at the World Championships since 2013. The last man to do it? None other than Lin.
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