Youngster Cheung Ngan-yi once considered quitting badminton after failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics this summer, but on Friday she proved it was the right decision to stay in the game.
The 23-year-old prodigy can now claim to have reached two superseries semi-finals in a month after defeating former world number one Saina Nehwal of India at the US$400,000 Yonex-Sunrise Hong Kong Open.
By claiming another major scalp, the Hong Kong star is setting her sights on returning to the world’s top 20, something she achieved last October.
“I’ve kept believing in myself whenever I had doubts and have now overcome the difficult days,” said Cheung, who beat the 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist 21-8, 18-21, 21-19 after a 71-minute duel at the Coliseum in Hung Hom.
“I must thank the fans’ support as they provided me the necessary morale booster to hold off the late comeback of Nehwal.
“This was the first time I experienced the power of our home fans.”
Cheung, who has never got past the second round in the home event, looked comfortable as she wrapped up the quarter-final tie. The world number 26 had led compatriot Yip Pui-yin in the Olympic qualification run until the last two months when two early exits in major events robbed her of the opportunity of going to Rio.
“She thought she made her Olympic debut dream come true but she didn’t make it but I told her Yip spent no less effort than her,” said coach Wang Chen. “Cheung is still young and the opportunities are still there if she can keep up her good work.”
Cheung will now take on Pusarla V. Sindhu for a place in the final and she can expect an even tougher fight as up-and-coming Sindhu took silver at the Rio Games. “The pressure is definitely on Sindhu because of her achievements at the Olympics so Cheung has nothing to lose,” said Chen.
Joining Cheung in the semi-finals is Angus Ng Ka-long in the men’s singles. The talented local player had little problem disposing of Ajay Jayaram of India 21-15, 21-14. “This is my fourth semi-finals this year and after losing all three, I wish I can go further this time, especially in front of a home crowd,” said Ng.
It was 12 months ago that Ng first shot to prominence when he defeated two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan of China at the same tournament. He then reached the semi-finals before losing to Lee Chong Wei, the world number one from Malaysia.
Hong Kong’s Hu Yun won his quarter-final and will play Ng in the men’s singles semi-finals. The veteran beat Sony Dwi Kuncoro of Indonesia 22-20, 21-12 and overtakes another teammate Wong Wing-ki to qualify for the Dubai seperseries final next month. It’s also the best ever result of the home team in the HK Open with four semi-finals places.
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In another men’s singles last-eight game on Friday, third seed Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark defeated home player Wong Wing-ki, 21-19, 21-17. Jorgensen also beat Wei Nan, another local star, in the previous round.
It was a sad day for Lee Chun-hei as the Hong Kong player lost two chances of reaching the podium. First he was defeated in the men’s doubles with Law Cheuk-him before losing in the mixed doubles when he and Chau Hoi-wah were beaten by second seeds, Praveen Jordan and Debby Susanto. The Indonesian pair won 17-21, 22-20, 21-14.
Meanwhile, world No 1 Carolina Marin of Spain screamed her way to a place in the semi-finals and then shrugged off the absence of China’s top women players in the superseries.
While the mainlanders’ poor run in the series continued with not a single Chinese player reaching the last four in the Hong Kong tournament, the Spanish Olympic gold medallist said China’s presence in the superseries was “not important at all”.
“You can see many of the tournaments were not won by Chinese players,” said 23-year-old Marin, who is defending her Hong Kong title. Marin beat Akane Yamaguchi of Japan 21-7, 21-18 but not before she was warned for making eye contact with her opponent by the umpire while screaming on almost every point she won.
The imposing Spanish player dominated her Japanese opponent who entered the Hong Kong Open in hot form after winning the Korea and Denmark Open superseries over the last two months. But the 19-year-old Japanese simply had no answer to the all-round game of the Spaniard.
Marin is popular in Hong Kong but the real darlings at the Coliseum in Hung Hom was not the Rio Olympic gold medallist but Hong Kong’s mixed doubles pair, Tang Chun-man and Tse Ying-suet, who received the most vocal support after the duo marched into the semi-finals.
Having stunned South Korea’s world number one pair, Ko Sung-Hyun and Kim Ha-na, in the first round, they continued their fairy-tale run by beating English duo, Chris Adcock and Gabrielle Adcock, the sixth seeds.
“It’s just unbelievable [reaching the last four],” said 21-year-old Tang, who is playing his fifth tournament with Tse since making their first appearance at the Indonesia Open superseries in May.
“We were only thinking of winning our first-round match before the tournament and now we are in the semi-finals of a superseries event. Amazing!”
Tse, however, reminded her partner to keep their feet on the ground and not get carried away by their latest success.
“We are newcomers on the tour and perhaps our opponents have yet to study us seriously,” said 25-year-old Tse. “Also, we are two left handers and that might have surprised our opponents because they need to get used to our style. Perhaps that’s why we can reach the semi-finals of a superseries tournament.
“We should learn more on court and gain more international exposure before we can call ourselves a new force to be reckoned with.”
The Hong Kong pair have already won the Chinese Taipei Masters last month – a grand prix tournament which was conducted under a 11-point rally of best-of-five game and finished runners-up in the Thailand Open in October.
Lee Chun-hei and Law Cheuk-him, however, made an exit in the men’s doubles after losing to Chai Biao and Hong Wei of China, the second seeds, in a quarter-final tie.
Hong Kong only failed to qualify in the men’s doubles for the Rio Games from five badminton disciplines.
“The Tokyo Olympics is definitely my target,” said 22-year-old Law, who has a tattoo that reads: “It’s now or never” on his left arm.