by Kabir Nagpal
In November 1969, Kim Malsoon had a baby daughter that would grow up to follow her father’s instructions of running after her passion. The love of table tennis was sown deep and early for Hyun Junghwa; it was only made stronger by the influence of her long time coach Lee Dalsup.
Style of play
However, before all the glory it was about how she broke into the top brass scene of the sport. Working part-time in a cosmetics shops, Junghwa relaxed in her down time with music and reading. At the end of leisure time however, an athlete arose who went back to work in complete focus.
Standing tall at 162cm, weighing 53kg, Junghwa always excelled close to the table, with a forehand so devastating her opponents often forgot about her backhand; she used only one side of the racket.
It made her most adept at blocking the ball early, creating angles and playing strongly down the line. Despite lacking the power of her colleagues, accuracy and finesse were more than compensatory.
Winning all possible titles at a World Championships – women’s team, women’s singles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles – Junghwa initially set out to play the sport for fun and exercise. Later her weekly practice sessions became training sessions for the top competitions.
Much like her nation’s finest athletes, she was true to the Korea Republic tradition of having strong legs, fast footwork and a clinical forehand; these strengths were on show in 1984 on her first trip to Europe, where she completed a clean sweep of all available events at the English Junior Open.
The world’s eye was caught however, at her first World Championships in the Indian capital of New Delhi, in 1987, when she won the women’s doubles gold partnering Yang Youngja. It was just a sign of things to come.
The very next year, at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, Junghwa again partnered Yang Youngja; the pair won gold. It was a special moment for then 18 year old Junghwa, who played with the composure of someone twice her age.
“That gave me some special inner strength” Hyun Junghwa
Composure and a style of play were evident again the following year at the 1989 World Championships in Dortmund. Winning mixed doubles gold with Yoo Namkyu, she went on to secure the silver medal in the women’s team event and also a bronze medal in the women’s singles.
Such form continued into her twenties, she was a crucial member of the the Korea Unified Team at the World Championships in Chiba in 1991, going on to beat the favorites, China 3-2 in the final. In that tournament, she played next to her compatriot Hong Chaok as well as Li Bun Hui and Yu Sun Bok from DPR Korea.
The final was a platform where she showcased her strength as a pen-holder in the women’s game, defeating Gao Jun in the singles’ match in style. The tournament was then later immortalised in the movie called “As One” made in 2012, speaking of the adventures of the 1991 Unified Korea Team.
At the tournament Hyun Junghwa was awarded the very prestigious Joola Trophy for her immaculate efforts. Soon at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, she won women’s singles bronze.
Memories of a golden time
To this day, she remains the last pen-hold grip player to win the women’s singles title at a World Championships, which came at the Gothenburg 1993 tournament. She is also the last none Chinese player to win the title.
“Unexpectedly, the main favourites, the Chinese girls, were eliminated at the early stages in the singles; that encouraged me and boosted my ambitions” Hyun Junghwa.
Defeating the likes of Tang Weiyi and Chen Zihe from China, she then accounted for the Romanian legend Otilia Badescu (17-21, 21-17, 22-20, 11-21, 22-20) in the semi-final, saving match point at 19-20 in the fifth game. Coming back from that, Junghwa won three points in a row with bullet like forehand attacking strokes to seal her place in the match for gold.
“All kinds of thoughts whirled through my mind. Luckily I did not panic. I decided to gamble and attacked her service right away.” Hyun Junghwa
Thus she reached the final in high spirits, facing one of the most gifted players of the era, Chen Jing. Chen had won women’s singles gold at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 when representing China but soon after she changed her allegiance to Chinese Taipei.
Score to settle
Hyun Junghwa was in her most lethal form in the final, negating the forehand top spin strokes of Chen to beat the Chinese Taipei athlete with a dominant display in straight games (21-16, 21-15, 21-14).
“In the final I was to face Chen Jing from Taipei, I had to settle a score with her dating from way back in 1987” Hyun Junghwa
During the award ceremony when the national anthem was played Junhwa was in floods of tears. It was something special for Junghwa.
As soon as the ceremony finished, she jumped off the podium, rushed to Choi Wongsuk, the President of the Korea Table Tennis Association and gave him the medal as a present to the nation.
Great pride, Hyun Junghwa knew this was not a win solely for her – it was one for the nation and it was a win that will be remembered for years to come.