SINGAPORE - After a nine-month Covid-enforced hiatus from international competitions, Singaporean shuttlers Yeo Jia Min and Loh Kean Yew finally started their season with two tournaments in Bangkok in the last two weeks.
And with two months remaining in the qualifying window for the July 23-Aug 8 Olympic Games, the duo now have a better picture of what they need to do to earn their tickets to Tokyo.
Qualifying starts from the Swiss Open in March and the window closes on May 2. The top 38 singles players in the men's and women's Race to Tokyo rankings will qualify and Loh and Yeo were 16th and 17th respectively before the Thailand events.
On Thursday (Jan 21), Singapore's top female player, world No. 26 Yeo Jia Min lost 21-15, 21-7 to South Korea's world No. 9 An Se-young in the second round of the Toyota Thailand Open.
Despite the defeat, the 21-year-old was the only Singaporean player to advance beyond the first round at the tournament, after she beat Indonesia's world No. 35 Ruselli Hartawan 22-20, 21-18 on Wednesday. At last week's Yonex Thailand Open, Yeo lost 21-15, 21-15 to Thailand's former world champion Ratchanok Intanon in the first round.
Yeo said: "My strategy (against An) was not working and I wanted to change but I couldn't be consistent.
"These two competitions have given me more focus on what to train on when I get back home so that I can be more confident in using different strategies in the future."
Teammate Loh and the women's doubles pair of Crystal Wong and Jin Yujia exited the tournament in the opening rounds in their respective events.
But they showed glimpses of being able to match more illustrious opponents, as Loh lost in three games to Indonesia's world No. 7 and Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie and Thailand's three-time world junior champion Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The women's duo also lost narrowly to Thai and Danish opponents.
Yeo and world No. 38 Loh are gunning for the Olympic Games but will need to find a way to overcome challenges in the next few months, such as a lack of local world-class sparring partners to raise their game.
National singles coach Kelvin Ho said: "Kean Yew needs to improve on his physical aspects such as fitness, while Jia Min has to work on strategy and train of thoughts during matches.
"Jiamin is able to match the speed of the top players but is behind in terms of decision-making and choice of shots. Her awareness on court and her consistency can also be better."
The team of five will return home on Friday evening and serve a 14-day quarantine before resuming training and they may head to Europe for more competitions should conditions allow during the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong said local athletes who need to travel abroad to train and compete Olympic qualifying events will be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccination.
While Loh said he is eager to find out more information, he added that athletes will have to adapt and do their part if sporting events and the Olympics are to proceed as scheduled.
He added: "This is the new normal, we must get used to this."