[**UPDATE: Singapore's Ashton Chen moved past India's H.S. Prannoy 19-21, 21-19, 21-12 in the Li-Ning Singapore Open Men's Qualifying first round, but eventually lost out on a place in the main draw after losing 20-22, 21-17, 17-21 to South Korean Lee Dong Keun.]
It’s been a while since Singapore’s badminton men gave us something to shout about.
They have struggled to reach the bar set by retired golden boys Ronald Susilo and Kendrick Lee in the last decade. None have come close to Susilo’s fabled victory over Lin Dan -- arguably the greatest player the sport has seen -- en route to the quarter-finals of the 2004 Olympics.
And as the Li Ning Singapore Open gets underway at the Indoor Stadium, Singapore's current No.2 Ashton Chen admits the current crop of men have some catching up to do.
“When (Susilo and Lee) left, there was already a huge gap apart so it wasn’t easy for us to close (it),” said the 23-year-old.
Derek Wong, Singapore's top-ranked player in recent years, said it's been difficult because Susilo was "a very talented player from young."
With "impressive skills, sharp smashes, a brilliant mind on court and good fighting spirit", Susilo was "one of the few" -- along with Lee -- who had it all, according to Wong.
Chen, who is placed 68th in the world, told Yahoo! Singapore: “We still have a long way to go, but we have progressed a lot since their absence.”
As the Republic's two best male shuttlers, Wong and Chen will get to chart their progress at the Li-Ning Singapore Open starting Tuesday.
Chen, who stands at 1.74m tall, was originally not slated to play in the country’s oldest badminton tournament, but as the first name on the reserve list, he was called up as recently as last week after the withdrawal of Chinese superstar Lin.
“I was already prepared to enter the competition anytime,” said Chen, a two-time Southeast Asian (SEA) Games quarter-finalist, when asked if the news came as a surprise. “Mentally, I’m always psyched up and ready to play.”
Chen himself is targeting a run to at least the first round of the Singapore Open, after his last two outings saw him dumped out in the qualifiers. His journey begins against Delhi-born H.S. Prannoy – whom he will take comfort in having trumped at last year’s India Super Series.
In any case, Chen, whose goal is to be ranked in the top five of the world, has never been one to be fazed by his rivals – regardless of their supposed quality.
He recalled his proudest moment in badminton when, as a precocious 18-year-old, he upset big-name Malaysian veteran and former world number one Roslin Hashim at the 2007 Asian Satellite Open in Singapore.
“I felt, if I can beat someone of his calibre, why can’t I beat other players?” said Chen. “The memory of that keeps me going. When I fight during every match now, it plays back in my mind.”
The win also helped validate his decision to turn professional the year before, right after his O-level exams. Although Chen’s parents were supportive, he first had to convince his father to “give (him) a few years to see how things go, and then plan again”.
Nearly seven years later, he has no regrets. “It isn’t that bad to be playing badminton full-time,” said Chen, who first picked up a racquet when he was five. “I can balance between training and studies.”
The Singapore Institute of Management student added: "For these next few years, while I'm still young, I'll just keep going."
Hopefully in a direction up and beyond the heights of his illustrious predecessors, with cause for Singapore to cheer.