ASY narrowly lost out to Marin in three sets in the Denmark Open QF. And while the headlines will read that An reached the Quarters (which is indeed an achievement for anyone, let alone a 17 yo youngster, the underlying story is one of a young player and her coaching staff that thoroughly prepared for the match but failed to adapt in time to the fluid reality of competition.
During the first intermission, the korean coaches were reminding An to avoid the rear forehand corner as Marin’s shot speed and variety make it too dangerous. They reminded her to lift to Marin’s backhand corner, as per the original game plan. They also encouraged her to settle down play herself into the match leaving behind her nervousness. The coach made an interesting comment telling her to keep the big picture in mind (probably because it was thought An was likely to lose the first set) and that they are looking at a three-set match. With this adjustment and by the combination of her fast movement and solid shot making, she rallied and won the first set, and that on a smash.
The coaches commended her on her play (they said more along the lines of “see, what we talked about worked…”) and made mention of being wise in shot selection when she was in her rear forehand corner (I take it so as not to make a shot that opened her up to Marin’s attack). Then the coverage went to Marin.
In the second set’s intermission with An leading 11-9, her coach told her to keep yo-yo-ing Marin back and forth and that this would cause Marin to make errors. Moreover, An was not to engage in drives or play that would speed up the game as that would be advantageous for Marin. And if An was in trouble, she was to lift high and give herself a chance to recover and reset the rally. (I think the advice here was solid, and the trouble when leading is that in general what you’ve been doing is successful, meaning that there is no imperative to change, or to put it more positively, one should keep with the working strategy. But surely a top class opponent and their (top class?) coach would make changes lest the game continue in the same trend.
In the following sequence, Marin continued her attacking style, made fewer errors (probably because she was told: “stop forcing the shot when you are backing up and late…”), began to adjust to An’s playbook (surely with more advice from Rivas). Then on game point for Marin, An hit a smash to Marin’s forehand that came back, and then made a drive shot right to Marin’s forehand that came back fast to which she could only make a weak reply that was finished off by Marin. The exact warning from coach to avoid drives was unheeded in that final rally that sent the game into the third set. And while matches are not usually won or lost because of one rally, given that the score was 19-20, winning that rally would have meant 20-all at which point it would have been anyone’s game.
To the coach’s credit, he remained calm (despite the regretful outcome of the second set) and reminded An to keep working Marin back and forth, and to keep avoiding lifting to Marin’s forehand. The coverage went to Marin for a bit, and when it came back to An, her coaches were reminding her that she wasn’t attacking enough, and that she had to attack from time to time, even if it went out sometimes.
On the first rally of the 3rd set, Marin pounced on An’s net shot. This was the first major warning (to both An, and especially her coaches) that Marin was on to their pattern and strategy. Of course, the trouble at this tournament was that the shuttles were fast and now the drift unfavourable so lifting or pushing deep was risky. Nevertheless, one has to determine if the strategy needs to be changed or not. When an opponent makes a netkill, the player’s confidence to play future net shots is affected.
An played the next half set with good control, especially with quality net play (despite the earlier net kill). Marin continued with errors into the net, while An’s lifts sometimes went long (probably due to the drift). An’s higher consistency and Marin’s errors that stemmed from the gameplan led to An leading 11-8 at the interval where they would change ends.
Unfortunately, there was no coverage of what the Korean coaches said during this interval. The play resumed with An making a winning body smash, then a net shot that tumbled over to take a 13-8 lead. This, I think was the danger zone, where the Korean team would have thought, “yes, things are going well.” But now Marin kept attacking, forcing an error from An, then a lift towards the An’s backhand side that the drift kept in. The players then traded points with Marin lifting long (again, drift), then An popping up a smash return that Marin killed, followed by An missing a kill shot of her own, hitting it too long. The score was now 14-12 for An but Marin had just scored the last two points, and was about to score three more to take the lead 15-14. So when the opponent makes 5 points in a row, there needs to an adjustment made, without going into full panic mode. A net shot error by Marin equaled the score at 15-all, but the trouble was Marin’s offensive play kept firing full blast while the running and retrieving caused An to tire and to leave her susceptible to Marin’s deception.
The next few points were essentially determined by whether Marin’s smash was in or out. To An’s credit, she tried a few smashes, but Marin was up to the task, and now in the third set, An’s fatigue meant that she was unable to score off her attack as before. Meanwhile, Marin is famous for her unusual ability not to fatigue (or even get out of breath after a long rally). I don’t physiologically understand this, as all the other world-class players are panting and trying to recover after a marathon rally, but never Marin. As a cyclist and fan of road cycling, I can only hope that other sports, and particularly here badminton are applying the lessons learned from cycling in their long struggle with PEDs, so that there can be confidence in the performance of athletes. But back to the game: at 17-16 in favour of Marin, An was pulling and pushing Marin but on a lift to her forehand, Marin flat-smashed it to An’s forehand that was returned wide. The next point went to An who couldn’t put away short lifts, but managed to play tight netshots on which Marin made a net reply that was loose which An pushed to the empty rear. An’s serve at 17-18 was driven hard to the corner by Marin that An barely got it back with the frame and was easily killed by Marin.
An then demonstrated her fierce mental toughness by attacking (at the coach’s urging I presume) the first lift she got and followed up a good net shot by killing Marin’s net return. Now serving 18-19, she faced a barrage of smashes and on the last one she was unable to get up from her dive and reach the cross court net shot in time. The final rally was again a display of Marin’s aggressive play where An made the mistake of driving straight into Marin’s lethal forehand.
In analyzing the game, the determining factor was that 5 point swing in the third set. It imbued confidence into Marin who kept working her attacking shots, drilling her opponent into exhaustion, if not submission. There needed to be an adjustment made to answer or neutralize the barrage of attacks from Marin. Whatever changes were made or attempted, they proved insufficient. The second factor was that An did not sufficiently heed her coach’s advice to avoid Marin’s rear forehand corner. The third factor was that An needs to steadily work at being more lethal on short lifts, and surely this will come in time. The last factor in this analysis is that the coaches will have the opportunity (and the need) to grow and learn from this match. Marin presents a challenge that few players and coaches have solved, and her physical speed and stamina are outside of the norm expected so that anyone who expects her attack to soften in the third set does so at one’s own peril.
Overall, this will serve as a great learning experience for both An and her coaches. She has impressed the badminton world with fantastic results this year, especially at this Denmark Open 2019 with her convincing win over PV Sindu. As fans of the sport, and here in this particular forum fans of Korea, we can only applaud and cheer this unassuming Korean giant-killer that follow the ilk of Okuhara and Yamaguchi.
p.s. Anyone know why her name is spelt An, instead of Ahn?