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SINGAPORE — Against an inspired veteran opponent, with the entire arena roaring against him, Loh Kean Yew buckled down to eke out a thrilling semi-final victory at the SEA Games in Vietnam on Saturday (21 May).
Singapore's reigning world champion was taken to the limit by Vietnam's former world No.5 Nguyen Tien Minh, but recovered from 16-18 down in the final set to outlast his rival 21-15, 10-21, 23-21 in front of a noisy, partisan Bac Giang Gymnasium crowd that roared their countryman on throughout the 70-minute match.
"Just keep hanging on," the world No.10 told reporters of his mindset during the final set.
"I was definitely affected by the crowd, but I managed my feelings and focused on playing my game. I'm glad I made a breakthrough with my performance."
The win meant that the 24-year-old Loh matched his silver-medal showing in the men's singles competition at the 2019 Games, where he lost to Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia in the final. Lee, as well as top Indonesian shuttlers Anthony Ginting and Jonatan Christie, had skipped the SEA Games competition.
On Sunday, Loh will face Thailand's world No.18 Kunlavut Vitidsam for a shot at winning Singapore's first men's singles gold medal since Wong Shoon Keat managed the feat at the 1983 Games on home soil, some 39 years ago.
Kunlavut had defeated another Singaporean shuttler, world No.88 Jason Teh, in a far more lopsided semi-final, winning 21-11, 21-12 in 45 minutes.
Loh had also seemed to be cruising to a comfortable victory, bamboozling Nguyen repeatedly in the first set with his ferocious smashes and leading 20-11 before putting his opponent away.
However, the wily Nguyen completely changed his tactics from the second set, settling into a defensive game to force Loh into errors. And the 39-year-old succeeded brilliantly, gaining inspiration from the loud support at the arena to retrieve with aplomb, while a perplexed Loh saw his shots fly wide repeatedly.
That set up the nail-biting third set, as Nguyen raced to a 7-3 lead to put the Singaporean under heavy pressure from the get go.
However, Loh managed to find his footing in time to slowly reel the Vietnamese in, gradually closing the gap until finally tying the score at 16-all. Even though Nguyen managed to inch ahead to 18-16, Loh kept battling doggedly to eventually hold his first match point at 20-19.
Nguyen would not give up either, coming up with sublime plays to save two match points, but on the third match point, the Vietnamese's return sailed over and out, as Loh pumped his fist and roared in delight at his gutsy win.
The top-seeded Loh is the only Singapore shuttler who managed to reach the final, as Teh and two other doubles pairs were eliminated in the last-four stage to earn joint-bronzes.
In the men's doubles, Loh's brother Kean Hean and Terry Hee also went the full three-set distance, but were narrowly defeated 21-15, 17-21, 19-21 by the top-seeded Indonesian pair of Pramudya Kusumawardana and Yeremia Erich Rambitan.
In the women's doubles, the Singapore duo of Insyirah Khan and Bernice Lim were no match for the top-seeded Indonesian pair of Apriyani Rahayu and Siti Fadia Silva Ramadhanti, who easily won 21-10, 21-7.