South Korea's upstart An Se-young: Young, fast, and dangerous

BWF's Most Promising Player of 2019 has surged towards the top of the sport's rankings – and she's still a teenager

By ZK Goh

To be named the "Most Promising Player" in any sport is a huge accolade. But for An Se-young, already among the top 10 women in the badminton world, it's just another addition to an impressive list of achievements that just continues to grow.

South Korea isn't always associated with having the world's top women's players in a sport seemingly dominated by other Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Thailand – and no Korean has won a women's singles Olympic medal since Bang Soo-hyun took gold at Atlanta 1996.

But things are changing – the country now has three women in the top 20, led from the front by 18-year-old An, ranked at number nine.

An Se-young competing at the 2019 French Open (Photo: Stephen Caillet / Panoramic / REUTERS)

Quick rise

It has been a rapid rise for the Gwangju native, one of the most dangerous talents currently on the circuit. An has spent only three years with the national team – when she was first selected in 2017, aged 15, she became the first middle school student to make the national set-up.

That same year, she was part of South Korea's World Junior Championships bronze-winning mixed team, before winning another bronze medal in 2018 as a member of the country's Uber Cup (women's team world championship) squad. But 2019 was her true breakthrough year.

So much so that in early 2020, An was named as one of Forbes' Asia 30 under 30 in the entertainment and sports category.

Big-name scalps

Then ranked 78th in the world, An made it to the final of the New Zealand Open in May 2019, a BWF Super 300 event. It was the first final she had made on the BWF World Tour. And her opponent? None other than the formidable Li Xuerui – China's London 2012 Olympic champion.

But An showed little sign of fear, taking the game to Li and winning in straight games 21–19 21–15. It was an impressive showing to win her first title, and one that sent her soaring 28 places in the rankings to 50th. And she was still only 17.

Shortly after, she would claim an even bigger scalp. At the Sudirman Cup – the mixed team World Championship – South Korea were drawn into the same preliminary group as Chinese Taipei. With Chinese Taipei leading their head-to-head tie 1–0, An was put forward in the second rubber to face world number one Tai Tzu-ying. Despite falling a game behind, An rallied to win in three games as South Korea went on to beat Chinese Taipei 3–2.

An would also win the Canada Open and Akita Masters Super 100 events that year, before reaching her biggest final yet at the French Open, a Super 750 event. She would have to face reigning Olympic champion Carolina Marín, and again the Korean teenager found herself behind after the first game. However, she mounted another comeback to take the title in three games, winning the third game by a one-sided scoreline of 21–5.

The week earlier, An had also beaten Olympic silver medallist P.V. Sindhu at the Denmark Open.

Idol's advice

An's fifth World Tour title came in her hometown of Gwangju at the Korea Masters Super 300 in November when she beat teammate Sung Ji-hyun – who also happens to be the player An looked up to when she first joined the national team.

Sung is a two-time Olympian from London and Rio, and the young An was nervous at first about being around her idol. However, with her fast development, An has quickly had to learn to deal with the pressures of being one of South Korea's top players. Thankfully for her, Sung has been there to provide advice.

"Have fun while playing and enjoy it without thinking too much," Sung told Yonhap about her advice after she had beaten An at the Korea Open Super 500 two months earlier.

Perhaps the BWF's Most Promising Player of the Year took the advice to heart when she reversed that result in Gwangju.