Stay cool if it’s sink or swim


PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s supporting cast need to step up and show their mettle if the team are to pull off a stunner against China in a possible clash in the knockout rounds of the Thomas Cup Finals from April 27-May 5 in Chengdu.

Former national doubles shuttler Koo Kien Keat (pic) believes that it’s time for the likes of singles player Leong Jun Hao and doubles pair Goh Sze Fei-Nur Izzuddin Rumsani to play prominent roles if Malaysia were pitted against the home team in the prestigious team meet.

World No. 37 Jun Hao is set to play in the second singles behind world No. 10 Lee Zii Jia while Sze Fei-Izzuddin (No. 15) will be the second doubles duo behind Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik (No. 5).

Malaysia and China, who have been placed in Group D and A respectively, could face each other in the latter rounds.

With China boasting world No. 2 Shi Yuqi in the first singles and world No. 1 Liang Weikeng-Wang Chang as their top doubles pair, there’s a high possibility that Malaysia could lose the first two matches which will put Jun Hao under tremendous pressure to save the tie against world No. 6 Li Shifeng.

If Jun Hao upstages Shifeng, Sze Fei-Izzuddin will then have to beat world No. 8 Liu Yuchen-Ou Xuanyi to make it 2-2.

Despite the tough task, Kien Keat has called on Jun Hao and Sze Fei-Izzuddin to rise to the occasion.

“On paper, China have a more balanced team and are the favourites against Malaysia,” said Kien Keat.

“Our team might be the underdogs but can try to put pressure on them by winning two points and dragging the match into a decider.

“It will then create an opportunity for the team to win. It’s time for the second singles and doubles players to step up and shine for the team to pull this off.

“The younger players should take this opportunity to prove themselves.”

Kien Keat, who won bronze four times with Malaysia in the 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2016 editions, also stressed that the players need to use the support of their teammates to lift themselves.

“Team tournaments are completely different from individual competitions,” said Kien Keat.

“When you play in an individual tournament, you don’t have any teammates to back you up.

“So, in a team event, the players need to dare to perform well with the support of the full team behind them.”

FIRST SINGLES

Lee Zii Jia (10) vs Shi Yuqi (2)

A tough opening match for Malaysia. Yuqi has not taken long to regain his best form since returning from a 10-month ban imposed by the China Badminton Association (CBA) for misconduct in August 2022 and has been one of the more consistent performers in the men’s singles over the past year.

The 28-year-old captured the Indian and French Opens this year, and has established himself as one of the favourites for the gold in the Paris Olympics.

Yuqi will also be motivated to help China reclaim the trophy after his ban forced him to miss the 2022 edition.

Zii Jia’s record against the Chinese ace is also not favourable as he has lost four times in five meetings with his sole win coming in the 2020 Malaysian Masters.

The 25-year-old will need to raise his game if he hopes to spring a surprise and give Malaysia a great start.

FIRST DOUBLES

Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik (5) vs Liang Weikeng-Wang Chang (1)

Aaron-Wooi Yik have only beaten the Chinese pair once in seven meetings and have struggled to overcome the latter in close games.

Weikeng-Wang Chang are also in good form after capturing the Asian Championships at home in Ningbo by outlasting another Malaysian pair Goh Sze Fei-Nur Izzuddin Rumsani in the final.

The duo will be on a high after reclaiming the No. 1 spot from India’s Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty.

Aaron-Wooi Yik may need to come up with something different to avenge their previous defeats to Weikeng-Wang Chang.

SECOND SINGLES

Leong Jun Hao (37) vs Li Shifeng (6)

Jun Hao faces an uphill battle against the reigning Asian Games gold medallist and last year’s All-England champion.

Shifeng looks to have got back his mojo after struggling for consistency since his success last year.

The 24-year-old claimed impressive wins over Indonesia’s world No. 7 Anthony Ginting and 2023 World Championships silver medallist Kodai Naraoka of Japan before finishing runners-up to Ginting’s teammate, world No. 3 Jonatan Christie in the Asian Championships.

Jun Hao and Shifeng have never met before in international competitions but Shifeng is the clear favourite.

SECOND DOUBLES

Goh Sze Fei-Nur Izzuddin Rumsani (15) vs Liu Yuchen-Ou Xuanyi (8)

Sze Fei-Izzuddin are in form at the moment after stunning the likes of South Korea’s reigning world champions Kang Min-hyuk-Seo Seung-jae, Taiwan’s Olympic gold medallists Lee Yang-Wang Chi-lin and Aaron-Wooi Yik en route to a silver medal in the Asian Championships.

Their impressive recent performance gives them a good chance of beating Yuchen-Xuanyi if the tie is still alive for Malaysia.

Both pairs are locked at 2-2 on the head-to-head record but the Chinese pair did overcome Sze Fei-Izzuddin in their past two meetings in the Japan Open last July and Indian Open in January.

The latter’s last win over the former came in the 2022 Malaysian Open.

Zii Jia or Aaron-Wooi Yik need to pull off a big win in their matches to give Sze Fei-Izzuddin a chance against Yuchen-Xuanyi.

THIRD SINGLES

Cheam Jun Wei (63) vs Weng Hongyang (16) or Lu Guangzu (19)

China have the luxury of fielding either Hongyang or Guangzu in the third singles if the match goes down to the wire.

Both have proven themselves capable and will be hungry to help their team win after missing the boat for the Olympics.

June Wei has lost both his past meetings with Hongyang but has beaten Guangzu in their only encounter in the 2019 Asian Mixed Team Championships.

It will be difficult for Malaysia to win the tie if it goes all the way to the deciding match.

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