PETALING JAYA: All eyes will be on Ong Ewe Hock when he makes his first international appearance at the Japan Open on Wednesday after a five-month enforced absence. But the fired-up veteran is playing down his chances.
The 31-year-old Ewe Hock, who is leading a few players from club side Naza Kia to Japan, has been seeded seventh and has a good chance of reaching at least the semi-finals if he is able to re-produce the same form that saw him winning the Malaysian Open title in 2001.
But Ewe Hock, currently ranked eighth in the world despite having not played in any international tournaments since the Danish Open in October, is not that optimistic.
“I have not played in an international tournament for a long time and I do not want to set high expectations. I want to get back the feeling of playing in major tournaments. I want to take one match at a time and see how far I can go,” said Ewe Hock.
Although Ewe Hock has played down his chances, the former national number one shuttler, will be out to prove a thing or two after being dropped from the national team by the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) in February.
After winning the Malaysian Open in 2001, Ewe Hock's two major highlights were reaching the semi-finals of the Korean Open and finishing as the runner-up to James Chua in the Malaysian Open last year. He did not play a prominent role in Malaysia's runner-up spot in the Thomas Cup Finals at Guangzhou, China last year.
Instead it was younger players like Mohd Hafiz Hashim and Lee Tsuen Seng who stole the show.
For the Japan Open, it may not be far-fetched to say that Ewe Hock is one of the Malaysian players who has been blessed with a good draw.
He has received a first round bye and will play England's Andrew Smith in the second round. If he proceeds, he will likely play South Korean Shon Seung-mo.
At the next stage, he may either meet China's Boa Chunlai or Denmark's Kenneth Jonassen.
Having beaten Chunlai in the Malaysian Open semi-finals last year, the match could go either way if he comes up against the Chinese youngster depending on how fast Ewe Hock can adapt in his first international tournament this year.
Besides Ewe Hock, the Naza Kia sponsored team will also feature Sairul Amar Ayob and Ismail Saman. Both Sairul and Ismail were also dropped from the national team in February.
The Ewe Hock-led band of shuttlers have also received backing from former national singles chief coach Indra Gunawan and former doubles ace Razif Sidek. And it will be a good start for the team if the players could pull off some surprises in Tokyo.
Following the absence of Wong Choong Hann, Malaysia's best bet Tsuen Seng face a tough opening round in the Japan Open. He plays Indonesian Marleve Mainaky in the first round.
If he wins, he may play another Indon Rony Agustinus. He is set to meet second seed Xia Xuanze in the third round.
The other players under the Malaysian banner are Yeoh Kay Bin, Hashim brothers – Roslin and Hafiz, Yong Hock Kin and Pei Wei Chung.
Nusa Mahsuri's Roslin, winner of the 2001 Japan Open, is set to meet top seed Chen Hong in the third round while his younger brother Hafiz, the All-England champion is set to play Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia in the third round.
For the record, Hafiz reached the quarter-finals last year while Malaysia had a 1-2 finish in the men's doubles. Chan Chong Ming-Chew Choon Eng won the title after Choong Tan Fook-Lee Wan Wah conceded a walkover.
This time, Malaysia are not sending their doubles players for the US$180,000 five-star tournament.