Badminton has high hopes despite transition

THEY may not say it officially but there are whispers from the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) that even with an inexperienced squad, winning at least two SEA Games medals next month is a reasonable target.

Just two years ago, the team hit rock bottom at the Naypyitaw edition of Asean's biennial sports meet, ending up with just a bronze after a gold and four bronzes in 2011.

Drastic action was taken through a shake-up in the coaching staff and the shuttlers started to flicker to life by winning two silvers and a bronze at last year's Commonwealth Games.

For this SEA Games, the SBA has introduced 11 debutants in its squad of 20 while the team's average age is 22.

Chew Keet Hou, its director of team administration, explained: "With some senior players retiring (like Fu Mingtian and Yao Lei), it is not possible for us to field a completely senior squad. This creates opportunities for the young players to step forward. The key thing is to expose them to a higher level of play.

"The senior players will help to put up a good fight and better our previous performance."

The youngest in the team, Crystal Wong, 16, is one of the debutants and it will be a moment the Singapore Sports School student will relish. She said: "It has always been my dream to play at the Games since I was 13. Realising this dream at such a young age makes this Games even more special for me."

However, not all youngsters are inexperienced and a case in point is 19-year-old Liang Xiaoyu, the women's singles player who has already won a team bronze at the 2013 Games, an Under-19 bronze at the Badminton Asia Youth Championships and was a quarter-finalist at last year's World Junior Championships.

Derek Wong, whose men's singles silver in Glasgow did much to ignite badminton's recovery in Singapore, believes the team are going through a period of rejuvenation. He said: "The (recent) strong performances definitely lifted the confidence of the team and spurred us on."

But even though Singapore will enjoy home advantage next month, the SEA Games is arguably a tougher competition compared to the Commonwealth Games, as world powers Indonesia and Thailand also enter the fray. Malaysia will wheel out former world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei, who will feature only in the men's team event.

In the men's singles, Wong could potentially face Vietnam's Nguyen Tien Minh (world No. 29), the 2013 SEA Games bronze medallist, and Thailand's world No. 19 Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk, 25, who triumphed in Naypyitaw 17 months ago.

Yet, Wong, the world No. 47, remained upbeat, saying: "I hope to be able to return to top form in the next two to three weeks, especially with the start of our training camp. Hopefully, I am able to repeat my Commonwealth Games performance."

But Singapore's women's doubles pair of Shinta Mulia Sari and Vanessa Neo are more guarded about their medal prospects. With Yao's retirement last year, Neo was brought in as a replacement.

Shinta believes the new partnership will take time to gel, saying: "We need to be patient, steady and more consistent on court. We are improving our communication and focusing on how to improve, especially since there is not much time left."