An Se Young, Up and Away in 2023

Three weeks, different time zones, different conditions, same result. It’s early in the season, and yet An Se Young needed no time to settle into rhythm. On three successive weeks of the HSBC BWF World Tour in January, the Korean made three finals, in Malaysia, India and Indonesia, winning two.

This isn’t the first time she’s done this, either. At the tail end of 2021, the Korean had accomplished this rare feat during the Bali Leg, and what’s more, actually won all three events, culminating with the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2021.

This time she lost the first final, at the PETRONAS Malaysia Open 2023. But given that she’s only 21, and that she’s continuously solving problems that troubled her earlier, the signs are that she’s pulling ahead of the rest of the field. Will she achieve the equivalent of what Viktor Axelsen has achieved in men’s singles over the last few years? Maybe (or maybe not), but she’s well on her way.

Speaking on the latest episode of Badminton Weekly, former No.1 Peter Gade explained why he was all admiration for the young star:

“It’s a combination of a lot of things. But mainly, she’s got the flair, that star quality; when she steps on court you can see that she’s born for this. The way she moves, the focus in her eyes, the fire in her eyes, you can see she love the game. She loves the battle with the opponent as well. She was definitely tested in the three finals. And although things are going up and down in the finals, she still remained composed.

“Tactically she’s on a very high level. More than anything, on the movement side, she’s showing techniques that I haven’t seen. She’s got a special rhythm, a special timing in her legs, that quite unique. That way, she’s going to be a role model for many players.”

It’s been a while since one player dominated women’s singles, winning all the titles that matter. Li Xue Rui swept through 2012 with eight titles including the Olympics, All England, Asian Championships and the Superseries Finals. Since then women’s singles has become the most competitive category, and even players like Carolina Marin (best year: 2015) and Tai Tzu Ying (2017 and 2018), who were the standout players of those seasons, could be called the first among equals, for the rest of the pack was constantly nipping at their heels.

Over the last three years, the players who most troubled An Se Young were Akane Yamaguchi, He Bing Jiao and Chen Yu Fei. Chen was 7-0 head-to-head until the Malaysia Masters last July, when An finally broke through against the Olympic champion with a 21-17 21-5 rout, and repeated the feat this January. He Bing Jiao was the only top 10 player An had never beaten in four previous meetings, and that duly changed at the YONEX SUNRISE India Open 2023, when the Korean recovered from a game down in the semifinal.

An Se Young has solved most of the puzzles that came her way.

It has been a bit more even between An Se Young and Yamaguchi, for the Korean beat the Japanese the first two times they met. Recent fortunes were swinging Yamaguchi’s way, before An stopped her opponent in the India Open final.

An has had a near-perfect start to the year, and it will be interesting to see if she can push on to greater heights. Or will her accomplished seniors, like Tai Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin, Pusarla V Sindhu and others, besides the Chinese, like Chen Yu Fei and Wang Zhi Yi, find ways to rein her in?

Gade surmised that the seniors were far from done.

“There are the older players like Carolina, Ratchanok, Sindhu, Tai… I’m quite sure we haven’t seen the last of these fantastic players.”

January has produced a sample of what’s to come, and fans are in for more special moments through the rest of the season.

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