Hong Kong and Japan On Course For Top Two East Asian Honours
By Alex Wan – Squash Mad Asian Bureau Editor
Hong Kong and Japan are the only two teams who remain unbeaten after chalking up two wins each on the first day of the 11th East Asian Squash Championships in Macau, which is played on a round-robin format. This places them on course for a one-two finish, with them due to face each other in the final tie on Sunday morning.
The 11th edition of the East Asian Squash Championships kicked off at the three-court national squash facility at Centro de Bowling. The annual team event, played on a 3 men and 2 women’s per team format, will employ a M3, W2, M1, W1, M2 format throughout the three days. Matches will be played on a round robin format with all six countries in a single group.
The morning session’s ties all ended in 5-0 scorelines. Hosts Macau took on the mighty favourites and defending champions Hong Kong. The hosts, fielding the youngest team with an average age of only 19 years of age, rested top men player Steven Liu.
First on court was 15 year old Leung Teng Chi, who was clearly nervous against the much more experienced Chris Lo. Dropping only four points in his 3-0 victory, the Hong Kong player was gracious in his match as he played on many points who could’ve easily been strokes.
A pair of 15-year olds took to court in the next tie, Hong Kong’s Lui Hiu Lam against the petite Yeung Weng Chi. Like her compatriot, Yeung started off in a nervous state but manages to give a much more composed performance after the first half of the first game. Still, Lui was simply a class above and Hong Kong would now lead the tie 2-0.
Macau’s top women’s player Ivy Liu was the best performer of the day, stretching world number 31 Liu Tsz-Ling in the first game before losing out 9-11, and eventually running out of steam in the next two games, losing in identical 1-11 scores.
The other two men ties were very one-sided affairs. Yip Tsz Fung, the newly crowned Hong Kong national champion, and Yuen Tsun Hei outplayed younger opponents in similar fashion.
“We faced the strongest team and defending champions and most of my players are 15 years old, so really, there was no high expectations from them. It’s good they have the opportunity to get this experience at such a young age,” said Lim Chee Ming, head coach of Macau.
On the other end of the complex, Japan saw off Taiwan 5-0. All won their matches 3-0, except for the ever-smiling second ranked man, Taiki Kaido, who dropped the first game in his 8-11, 11-7, 11-3, 11-6 in the last tie. It was also by far the most entertaining match of the tie, with Kaido entertaining the crowd with his retrieving skills.
Earlier, Masaki Suzuki had opened accounts by beating Chen Chieh-Ming in convincing fashion 11-4, 11-5, 11-5. Japan’s national champion Ryunosuke Tsukue was given a test in patches by Chen Sheng-Kai in the top men’s tie. The 18-year old Tsukue took the first 11-8, then waltzed through the next 11-2, before squeezing in the third 11-9.
Both the women’s tie were lopsided, with the Japanese pair of top junior Satomi Watanabe and Risa Sugimoto each handing out a bagel each to their opponents. The Taiwanese simply had no answer to the pace the Japanese women were playing at.
Taiwan’s coach, Wu Chia Hui, however, was pleased with her charges. “I’m pretty happy with how they did. Japan is a strong team, a class above us in all the ties. It’s different in Taiwan because we do not have a training base like many do. They are all students and we don’t even train everyday.”
On the centre court, the most competitive matchup took place with Korea coming out winners against China. An interesting fact about the Korean team is that their top players, both the men and women, are over-35.
Korea’s coach, Koo Ryun Hoe, when asked why is there an age gap between the top players and the rest, simply said, “There’s no reason for it really. We had a selection in our national camp and the more experienced players simply came out tops.”
In the opening match, Korea’s Jae Jin Yoo saw off Yang Tianxia 3-0 with relative ease, before compatriot Yura Choe took to court against China’s Gu Jinyue. The pair of 23 year old ladies fought tooth and nail, especially in the second and third games.
After the Korean raced to a 9-3 lead in no time, something within Gu came alive as she fought back strongly, which threw the Korean off a little. It was 9-3, then 10-7 before Choe manages to just squeeze through.
The next two games were competitive, with both times, Choe just scrapping through. The win would be Choe’s first over the Chinese number two. A clearly delighted Choe said afterwards, “I’m happy with my win. She was nervous in the first game and it made things easy for me. When she settled, it was different then.”
The top women’s tie was short lived as a clearly injured Li Dongjin of China was not able to move. She tried to play in the first game against Park Eun Ok, but even after the first two points, it was evident there was not going to be a match.
The top two men’s tie were the most closely matched games of the morning. The Chinese men gave a good account of themselves against the far more experienced Koreans.
Despite the loss, China’s team coach, Wong Wai Chung, was not disappointed. “It’s a results as I had expected. My players gave their best. We have our best team here and we aim to do similarly well as last year, where we finished fourth. But with an injured player, it will be tougher this time.”
The Japan and Korea matchup started with a ferocious pace with Masaki Suzuki and Yoo Jae Jin playing a power game where both players struck the ball hard from start to end. It was a “loud” game in comparison to the other two matches being played in the same venue.
Yoo had the best possible start when he took a remarkable 5-point lead 7-2 before his Japanese opponent staged a comeback to 6-7. Yoo recomposed and manages to wrap the game up 11-9. Yoo continued his good run in the next game to take a 2-0 lead. The East Asian Championships debutant ensured Korea had the lead, winning the third game 11-8 after Suzuki sent a forehand into the tin.
The second tie featured Risa Sugimoto of Japan and Korea’s Yura Choi, a match which would feature quite a few traffic problems between the two ladies. It was apparent right from the start that the taller Korean is not a happy camper with the way Sugimoto moves around, which is by no mreans, aggressive. It is simply the Korean getting agitated and annoyed Sugimoto would be making every possible effort to the ball more than anything. In the fourth, the Korean has had it and gave the Japanese a very evident shove after the point had ended, to which the referee disappointingly did not issue a conduct warning.
The Korean was clearly the more skilful player on court, but Sugimoto more than made up for the disadvantage with her nippy movements all over. Fitness wise, the Japanese was ahead too, evidently in the third and fourth games.
After taking a 2-0 lead, Sugimoto dropped the third, before fatigue took over Choi, as she allowed the Japanese to race to a 8-0 lead. She did well to get back to 6-9, but the effort came too late and the tie was now level.
Korea’s Lee Geondong next took to court against Japan’s national champion Ryunosuke Tsukue, whom at 18, is half of Lee’s age. Tsukue plays with a very unorthodox swing, which has nearly no backswing and employs his wrist in all his shots. He has thunder quick reflection and given the pace he enjoys playing, and the age difference between the pair, the Korean did not have much of chance. This was the case in the first two games, Tsukue sending Lee sprawling all around the corners, wearing him out and winning 11-5, 11-4.
But Lee surprised in the third when he led most of the time, forcing the Japanese to come from behind 6-8, before winning four points in a row to match point 10-8. A determined Lee saved two match balls, pulled back to 10-10, then saved another match ball, before going down 13-11.
Satomi Watanabe next faced Korea’s Park Eun Ok, who at 38, is the oldest player in the competition. With Watanabe aged 17, there is a 21 year age gap between the two. Just like her compatriot earlier, Park gave the youngster a very good run for her money.
After losing a very close first game 12-10, Park seemed to have ran out of steam as Watanabe won the next much easier 11-6. But the Korean veteran, who was ranked as high as 56 in the world rankings, pulled a game back 11-7. Watanabe knew she needed to win to guarantee the win for Japan and she duly completed her job, winning 11-5 in the fourth.
“I’m happy with the results, that I won. But I am definitely not pleased with the quality of my game. I couldn’t play what I wanted to. Park is very experienced and (despite her age) she is still a very good player. I feel I could’ve played much better. I was on the defensive most of the time and her volleys are very accurate. I think it was my stamina that won me the match,” said a relieved but somewhat disappointed Satomi Watanabe.
The last dead runner between Japan’s Taiki Kaido and Lee Seung Jun was won by the Korean 3-0.
Macau’s 15 year old Manuel Chan Gassmann gave a far better account of himself after a nervous performance in the morning. The 15-year old did well to win the first game 11-9, despite being caught a couple of times by 17-year old Yang Tianxia’s attacking boasts. He was clearly a different player and there were rallies lasting more than 10 shots, unlike in the morning.
In the next three games however, he seemed to look out of steam, particularly in the third game. On many occasions, he was not chasing returns he would earlier. Macau’s number two lost the next three games but can walk with his head held high.
“I had a strategy to start with a slow pace. It worked in the first and I got more confident, so I tried to up the pace, which worked against me. I wasn’t feeling tired. I am happy with how I played, but I think I could’ve done better,” said Manuel Chan Gassman.
China took a 2-0 lead through Gu Jinyue who took out Yeung Wing Chi, the petite Macau teenager who looked half the size of her opponent. The match was much closer than the score line of 111-8, 11-7, 11-6 would suggest, with Yeung’s accurate and deceptive volleying often catching the Chinese off guard.
Wang Junjie and Macau’s only men’s professional player, Steven Liu, ranked 225 in the world, would then play the match of the day. The duo battled for nearly an hour before the Chinese came out victorious 12-10, 11-9, 7-11, 13-11.
Liu did not start very well as his choice of shots were far from ideal, allowing Wang top open a 3-0 lead. Given that the game ended 12-10, things could’ve been different had he not allowed that to happen in the start of the game. But credit to both players who gave the small crowd plenty to cheer for throughout the match.
As expected, the top women’s tie was a one sided affair as China’s top player Li Dongjin is injured. Like the morning match, she played a game before forfeiting the match to Ivy Liu, elder sibling to Steven. Shen Jiaqi won the final match of the tie 3-1 against Macau’s Van Keng Hei to give China a 4-1 overall win.
Favourites Hong Kong, as expected, did not face much resistance against Chinese Taipei. Like the morning tie, they were the first to get off court after maintaining their clean sheet of not dropping a game in the competition.
Lau Tsz Kwan, the 20 year old world number 240, who took to court first, had the toughest match of the tie, seeing off Chen Chieh-Ming 11-4, 11-6, 11-7.
Both the Hong Kong women did not have to sweat much in their matches, with Liu Tsz-Ling and Lui Hiu Lam dropping just 13 and 9 points respectively in their matches. It was a similar case with the other two men’s ties, Yip Tsz Fung, who is at a career high ranking of 49, and Yuen Tsun Hei, who was earlier rested, winning in very convincing scores of 3-0.
Hong Kong would seem to have another easy morning tomorrow, facing China, and later in the day Korea, before their sternest test comes on Sunday morning through Japan.
Results (Day One):
Hong Kong bt Macau 5-0
Yip Tsz Fung bt Van Keng Hei 11-2, 11-2, 11-4
Yuen Tsun Hei bt Manuel Chan Gassmann 11-3, 11-3, 11-2
Chris Lo bt Leung Teng Chi 11-2, 11-1, 11-1
Liu Tsz-Ling bt Ivy Liu 11-9, 11-1, 11-1
Lui Hiu Lam bt Yeung Weng chi 11-4, 11-6, 11-6
Japan bt Chinese Taipei 5-0
Rynosuke Tsukue bt Chen Sheng-Kai 11-8, 11-2, 11-9
Taiki Kaido bt Chen Ching-Han 8-11, 11-7, 11-3, 11-6
Masaki Suzuki bt Chen Chieh-Ming 11-4, 11-5, 11-5
Satomi Watanabe bt Lee Yi-Hsuan 11-0, 11-2, 11-5
Korea bt China 5-0
Lee Geondong bt Wang Junjie 11-8, 11-7, 11-6
Seung Jun Lee bt Shen Jiaqi 11-9, 11-8, 8-11, 11-9
Jae Jin Yoo bt Yang Tianxia 11-5, 11-2, 11-4
Park Eun Ok bt Li Dongjin 11-2, rtd
Yura Choe bt Gu Jinyue 11-9, 12-10, 11-8
Hong Kong bt Chinese Taipei 5-0
Yip Tsz Fung bt Chen Sheng Kai 11-3, 11-2, 11-4
Yuen Tsun Hei bt Chen Ching Han 11-4, 11-6, 11-9
Lau Tze Kwan bt Chen Cheih Ming 11-4, 11-5, 11-4
Liu Tsz-Ling bt Lee Yi Hsuan 11-2, 11-3, 11-5
Lui Hiu Lam bt Lu Yung Chi 11-4, 11-3, 11-2
Japan bt Korea 3-2
Rynosuke Tsukue bt Lee Geondong 11-5, 11-4, 13-11
Taiki Kaido lost to Lee Seung Jun 6-11, 4-11, 7-11
Masaki Suzuki lost to Yoo Jae Jin 9-11, 7-11, 8-11
Satomi Watanabe bt Park Eun Ok 14-12, 11-6, 7-11, 11-5
Risa Sugimoto bt Yura Choe 11-7, 6-11, 11-3, 11-6
China bt Macau 4-1
Wang Junjie bt Steven Liu 12-10, 11-9, 7-11, 13-11
Shen Jiaqi bt Manuel Chan Gassman 9-11, 11-5, 11-5, 11-5
Yang Tianxia bt Van Keng Hei 11-6, 11-4, 11-6
Li Dongjin lost to Ivy Liu 2-11, rtd
Gu Jinyue bt Yeung Weng chi 11-8, 11-9, 11-6
Pictures by Macau Squash Association