SINGAPORE - In the end, it was one giant too many for national shuttler Loh Kean Yew to overcome as he lost 21-13, 9-21, 21-13 to world No. 2 Viktor Axelsen in the final of the Indonesia Open on Sunday (Nov 28).
Loh, the 24-year-old world No. 26, had beaten higher-ranked opponents - most notably world No. 1 Kento Momota - in his run to the final of the US$850,000 (S$1.16 million) Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour Super 1000 event at the Bali International Convention Centre.
But 27-year-old Dane Axelsen, who won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August, proved too much for Loh to overcome, despite the Singaporean rallying to win the second game after losing the first.
Loh said: "I wasn't patient enough throughout the game. I should have been more patient and kept some rallies going instead of trying to kill him… Against Viktor, it's risky."
The loss ended his hopes of becoming the first Singaporean man to qualify for the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals next week, also in Bali. A win would have seen him take the place of Thai world No. 22 Kunlavut Vitidsarn.
Singapore will be represented though, with Yeo Jia Min earning a spot in the women's singles.
Still, Loh's run in Bali is the best performance by a local male shuttler since Ronald Susilo's win at the Japan Open in 2004. That was a Super 750 event, one rung lower than the Indonesia Open, since the BWF's tournament tiers were introduced in 2018.
Loh, who stands at 1.75m, had trained with the 1.94m Axelsen in Dubai for a month in August and September, and he seemed unfazed standing across the court from the giant Dane on Sunday.
He held his own with a strong start in the first game, and was level at 6-6, but then faded for a spell and went on to lose 21-13. But Loh soon rediscovered his verve and stormed back to win the second game.
In the deciding game, Axelsen started more aggressively and built up a 15-8 lead after a long rally, and went on to see out the match.
Following his training stint in Dubai, Loh had kicked on to a fine run of form.
The Indonesia Open was his third singles final in two months, after wins at the Super 100 Dutch Open in October and the Super 500 Hylo Open earlier this month.
In recent weeks, he has also beaten a string of top players, most notably Momota, as well as Chinese Taipei's world No. 4 Chou Tien-chen, Malaysia's All England champion Lee Zii Jia (seventh), Taiwanese Wang Tzu-wei (11th), and India's Lakshya Sen (19th).
Loh, who earned US$28,900 (S$39,600) for his runner-up finish, said: "I haven't really reflected on the past week because I haven't had the time.
"It has been a pretty good run but it was not as easy as it (sometimes) seemed.
"Preparation was crucial. Before games, the whole day I was in my room, fighting my own battle mentally... in order to perform. That was the toughest part."
Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) president Lawrence Leow said Loh and Yeo's recent successes were "not a coincidence" but "a culmination of a robust business continuity plan at SBA".
He added: "We identified the players' needs, considered our resources, deliberated on our options, and made good decisions in a specially curated training programme.
The honours were shared in Bali on Sunday, with each title going to a different country.
South Korea's An Se-young got the ball rolling with a 21-17, 22-20 win over Thai Ratchanok Intanon in the women's singles.
Japan's Nami Matsuyama and Chiharu Shida then edged out Indonesian women's doubles Olympic champions Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu 21-19, 21-19.
In the mixed doubles, Thai top seeds Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai beat Japanese duo Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino 21-12, 21-13.
The hosts enjoyed success in the men's doubles, with the top-seeded Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo getting the better of the unseeded Japanese pair of Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi 21-14, 21-18.