In 2011, Ratchanok Intanon created history by becoming the first shuttler – female or male – to win three BWF World Junior Championship titles. The Thai was only 14 when she won the first of those titles in 2009. Two years after winning her third world junior title, Intanon went on to win the biggie – the BWF World Championships, in 2013.
In 2019, another Thai shuttler could repeat her feat on the junior circuit. Hailing from the same Banthongyord Badminton School in Thailand where Intanon picked up the sport, Kunlavut Vitidsarn has won the BWF World Junior Championship in 2017 and 2018. Before him, no other Thai had won the world junior men’s singles title.
Still only 17 years old, View, as he is called by those close to him, has set his sights on a hat-trick of world junior titles to emulate his country’s most popular shuttler.
“I feel very happy to have defended my world junior title,” said Kunlavut, who is in Mumbai competing in the Tata Open India International Challenge. The 17-year-old has reached the semi-finals of the ongoing senior tournament.
“I lost in the round of 32 [of the world juniors] in 2016 and then won the title in 2017 and 2018. I can play next year again for the last time. I want to win it for the third time. It will be hard but I will try.”
It is incredible to think that Kunlavut would probably not even have taken up the sport he is so successful in, had it not been for a nasal allergy he had as a child. Before he started spending most of his time on badminton courts, Kunlavut used to frequent hospitals a lot as a kid.
“I had an allergy,” he said. “If the weather was cold, like for example in an air-conditioned environment, and I stepped out into warm weather, my nose could not handle it. I used to go to hospital once or twice a week.”
At the age of seven, Kunlavut’s father, who is a badminton coach, introduced him to the sport. And it worked wonders with his medical condition. “As I started playing more, the number of hospital trips reduced,” he said. “I soon started enjoying the sport and here I am.”
Kunlavut enrolled in the Banthongyord Badminton School at the age of 12, after watching Intanon win the world championship in 2013. Today, he is one of the most feared and successful shuttlers on the world junior circuit, along with India’s Lakshya Sen.
However, like Intanon, Kunlavut now wants to graduate to winning titles on the senior circuit. “Next year I will play in seniors mostly,” he said. “I might play two or three junior tournaments but it will mostly be seniors. I am playing the Thailand Masters in January. I haven’t decided what tournaments to play after that.”
Currently ranked 211th in the world in seniors, Kunlavut wants to improve that number so that he can start playing in higher-level senior tournaments. “My aim for next year is to play tournaments higher than Super 100-level,” he said. “I would like to play at Superseries level [Super 500 and above under the new ranking system] in the near future.”
Kunlavut faces his compatriot, Adulrach Namkul, who is four years senior to him, in the semi-finals of the Tata Open on Saturday.
If he wins that match, he could face a familiar foe on the junior circuit, India’s Lakshya Sen, in the final. Kunlavut had lost to Sen in the final of the Asian junior championship earlier this year, but avenged that defeat by beating the Indian in the semi-finals of the world juniors. Sen will take on another Thai, Kantawat Leelavechabutr, in the other men’s singles semi-final of the Tata Open.
Kunlavut considers Sen and Japan’s Kodai Naraoka, the losing finalist of the world juniors, as his two main competitors in the junior circuit.
Kunlavut grew up idolising Malaysian badminton legend Lee Chong Wei, but when asked which shuttler he would like to face in the senior circuit, pat came the reply: “Kento Momota. I want to beat him.”
(Clarification: The article originally said Kunlavut won the Junior Worlds in 2016 and 2017, that has now been corrected to 2017 and 2018.)