SINGAPORE - National shuttlers Loh Kean Yew and Yeo Jia Min displayed tremendous mental fortitude to advance to the last four of a BWF World Tour Super 500 - the fourth-highest level on badminton's world tour - event for the first time in their respective careers.
In the US$320,000 (S$431,000) Hylo Open men's singles quarter-final on Friday (Nov 5), world No. 39 Loh was 20-19 down in the decider and facing matchpoint when he pulled off what he called "The Matrix" move.
He had played a backhand shot at the net too high at the middle of the court, and was at the mercy of Denmark's world No. 13 Rasmus Gemke who pounced with a backhand smash aimed at Loh's body.
Incredibly, the Singaporean arched his back and leaned back like what Neo did to dodge bullets in the iconic scene of the 1999 cult classic film, as the shuttlecock flew out for deuce.
Visibly rattled, Gemke made two unforced errors, firing into the net and out wide in the next two points as Loh eked a hard-earned 21-11, 19-21, 22-20 victory over 72 minutes.
On Saturday, he will face a familiar foe in India's world No. 21 Lakshya Sen for a place in Sunday's final at the Saarlandhalle in Saarbrucken. Loh had beaten Sen to win the Dutch Open in October, but lost to the same opponent in the round of 16 at the French Open last week.
When asked about the match-saving move, the 24-year-old quipped with a laugh: "Just like in The Matrix!
"It's instinct and reflexes. At that moment, it felt high, so I gambled on it going out. Luckily for me it did."
There was nothing fortunate about his overall performance as he kept his focus despite the disappointment of not being able to seal the win with the second game after leading 17-14.
In the third game, he was 16-12 down but won five points in a row, including a lung-busting 42-shot rally to take the lead.
Loh said: "I was in control of the rhythm at first, but he was more ready for my game plan in the second game and that made it harder for me to break his rhythm.
"I went for broke when I was four down in the decider, became more aggressive, and it worked. I cannot even remember what I was thinking at that point except that I was focused on getting the shuttle over in every point, except that one at 20-19.
"I'm not thinking about much else now other than to rest and recover well for the semi-final, which will be tough, so I'm mentally prepared for another gruelling game and aiming to come out on top again."
Also looking to make the final is women's singles world No. 26 Yeo, who recovered to beat Belgian Lianne Tan 14-21, 21-9, 21-18 in 56 minutes.
She also did it the hard way against the 38th-ranked Tan, who benefited from tight line calls during the tense 56 minute clash but eventually ran out of steam.
Yeo will face Canada's world No. 11 Michelle Li on Saturday for a place in Sunday's final. Li, 30, had won their previous two encounters in 2019.
Yeo said: "Discomfort in my knee affected my movement in the first game. I didn't want to lose this way, so I picked myself back up for the second and third.
"In the decider, I focused more on the game play than the points."
"I'm happy and grateful to reach the semi-finals here and I'll do my best to go further."
The 22-year-old has been in fine form to dispatch Chinese Taipei's world No. 39 Pai Yu Po, Indonesia's world No. 23 Gregoria Mariska Tunjung and now Tan.
Similarly, Loh has beaten three top-15 players, including Malaysia's world No. 8 and All-England champion Lee Zii Jia and Taiwanese world No. 4 Chou Tien-chen, over the past two weeks.
He also overcame France's world No. 35 Toma Junior Popov 21-15, 11-21, 21-15 in the round of 16 on Thursday.
As their world rankings are expected to rise, with a career best expected for Yeo who was 24th in 2019, Singapore Badminton Association technical director Martin Andrew told The Straits Times that a place in the top 10 is not beyond Yeo and Loh.
He said: "Both players have the ability to reach the top 10, but the challenge is tough and it's such a high level. They need to be able to consistently perform match after match and have the physical robustness to do that.
"They have identified development goals, and are working hard on all areas of their games.
"Both Jia Min and Kean Yew are showing the level of performances they are capable of. Their performances at these current European tournaments have been strong, showing some real development since the Tokyo Olympics.
"They are also showing some really good match intelligence against high-level opponents which stands them in good stead as we move forward and continue building.
"They have had good discussions with the coaches since the Olympics and have a strong focus on doing well in the next two to three years and delivering high-level performances at Paris 2024."
Meanwhile at the Hungarian International, a US$5,000 International Series event, Singapore's world No. 147 Jason Teh's run ended with a quarter-final defeat by India's world No. 235 Meiraba Luwang Maisnam who won 17-21 21-18 21-18 in 84 minutes.