SINGAPORE – In an ideal match, Loh Kean Yew would soar, his racket reaching an apex of almost three metres, and blast cross-court smashes of over 300kmh into the corners.
In rallies, he would scramble and do splits to retrieve well-placed shots, but frequently find the golf ball-sized sweet spot on his racket that is highly strung at 31 pounds, to befuddle opponents.
These are what he visualises before he sleeps, as he dreams of becoming the first local shuttler to finish on the podium at the Olympics.
Since badminton joined the Summer Games at Barcelona 1992, 14 Singaporeans have gone before Loh but none have returned with a medal. Ronald Susilo reached the men’s singles last eight at Athens 2004, and Jiang Yanmei and Li Yujia got as far as the women’s doubles quarter-finals at Beijing 2008.
Loh, 24, said: “It’s like diving to save a good smash or making the opponent go in a different direction with a trick shot – when you pull off something people don’t expect and leave them stunned, the feeling is damn shiok.
“Winning tournaments is great and it is not easy, but it is also not uncommon and people can forget about them (such victories).
“But if you achieve a first, nobody can ever take that away from you. I want to create history… so that the next generation can be inspired to do the same or even better.”
The world No. 42 is under no illusions about the scale of this challenge at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, and understands if some may scoff at his lofty target.
Even with superstars Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei retired, there is still a world-class field led by China’s defending champion Chen Long, 2016 bronze medallist Viktor Axelsen and home favourite Kento Momota, the world No. 1.
Furthermore, since 1992, only two unseeded players have won a men’s singles Olympic medal. Dane Thomas Stuer-Lauridsen claimed shared bronze while Indonesian Taufik Hidayat won gold in 2004.
But Loh’s belief is unwavering. “Ability-wise, I don’t lose. This is the Olympics – anyone can screw up, and I can out-perform anyone,” he said.
This is not just fighting talk. In recent years, he has shown he is capable of giant-killing acts, with 2019 the highlight of his career.
He beat two former World Championship bronze medallists in Vietnam’s Nguyen Tien Minh and Denmark’s Jan O. Jorgensen, overcame top Indians Kashyap Parulpali and Sameer Verma and Taiwan’s current world No. 10 Wang Tzu-wei twice each.
There was also that remarkable win over the Lin in the 2019 Thailand Masters final and later that year captured the silver medal at the SEA Games in Manila.
Last year, Loh added further scalps, beating Japanese world No. 10 Kanta Tsuneyama at the 2020 Indonesia Masters and Taiwanese world No. 2 Chou Tien-chen at the Badminton Asia Team Championships.
“These wins give me confidence and reassure me that with the right preparations, I can make it among the elite,” said Loh. “But we cannot dwell on them too much because those wins are already over and we need to move on and prepare for the next match.”
Raised in a sport-loving family where his father exposed them to different activities including basketball, football and swimming, Penang-native Loh was five when he first picked up a racket as they sparred at the entrance of their terraced house, using the gate as the net.
The youngest of four brothers, he was inseparable from his badminton-loving third brother Kean Hean, who is two years older, and tagged along for Kean Hean’s school training and academy sessions.
Loh developed into one of Malaysia’s top young players and even beat Lee Zii Jia – who this year captured prestigious All England Open crown – in the Under-12 final of the 2009 National Junior Grand Prix in Seremban.
He eventually followed Kean Hean across the Causeway and enrolled at the Singapore Sport School in 2010.
Chuckling, he recalled: “When the time came for me to move here, I was angry because my friends were all in Malaysia. But my mother already bought the ticket to send me here, so what to do?
“So slowly, I started to make friends and adapt to life here.”
Loh thrived as he rose through the ranks at the Singapore Badminton Association, obtaining Singapore citizenship in 2015 before claiming a men’s singles bronze at the SEA Games that year.
In recent years, he has been sent for short training and playing stints in Denmark and India which have expanded his horizon as he learnt from “highly focused and intense” sessions there.
Putting in the hard yards is also non-negotiable.
While a badminton match usually lasts for about an hour, about half that of a tennis match, shuttlers tend to run 6km, or twice as much, and hit double the number of shots.
This is why Loh trains six days or 30 hours a week, with double sessions on four days which include court, gym sessions and runs. During competitions, he also devotes time analysing opponents, trying to find weaknesses to exploit.
He said: “I could take the easy way out but I wouldn’t be here right now. Against the top players, I need to keep up and last the distance.
“When we were asked as juniors what our target was, everybody would say, ‘Olympic champion’. Who knew it would be so hard?
“There are players in the top 10 who don’t have much talent but are there because they have discipline, grit and consistency; there are other more talented players who are not there for various reasons. There are too many good players out there regardless of their rankings and I cannot be complacent.”
His childhood rival Zii Jia’s All England breakthrough also drives him.
Loh said: “This kind of healthy rivalry is good to motivate each other. When we see other players of our generation start to win major titles, we are happy for them but also envious. But envy is not enough, I need to work hard and beat them.
“Zii Jia’s win shows anything is possible, even my dream of winning an Olympic medal for Singapore. When the time and opportunity come, I just have to be ready to grab it.”
Singaporean shuttlers at Tokyo 2020
Loh Kean Yew, 24
Event: Men’s singles
World ranking: 42
Competition date: July 24-Aug 2
Group G opponents: Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie (world No. 7) and refugee athlete Aram Mahmoud (No. 172), a Syrian who plays under the Dutch flag.
Olympic career: Debutant
Yeo Jia Min, 22
Event: Women’s singles
World ranking: 30
Competition date: July 24-Aug 1
Group K opponents: South Korea’s Kim Ga-eun (No. 18) and Mexico’s Haramara Gaitan (No. 92)
Olympic career: Debutant
In the Olympic singles events, players are divided into 14 groups of three to four players for round-robin matches and the top-ranked player will advance to the knockout round.