This trip to South Korea marked my first tournament in Asia as a badminton umpire. Excitement and nerves blended as I embarked on this memorable journey to be a part of the prestigious Korean Open 2023. The voyage began with a classic London start – an early Friday morning tube ride on the District and Piccadilly line from the quiet suburbs of southwest London to the sprawling London Heathrow Airport T3. After dropping my luggage and going through security, I boarded my flight to Seoul Incheon Airport via Helsinki. After a very comfortable journey heading eastward, I landed in Seoul on Saturday noon on a rather rainy and cloudy day. After going through immigration and collecting luggage (very quick procedure!), I proceeded to the city centre where I was to stay for one night before I headed south to the coastal port city of Yeosu. When I got to the hotel I waited for an hour or so for the rain to stop before I headed out to discover a little bit about Seoul and was able to explore its historic treasures including Deoksugung Palace and Gyeongbokgung Palace (the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty). As the sun dipped below the horizon on Saturday evening, I strolled through Myeongdong to grab dinner at one of the most popular Korean Fried Chicken chain - BHC Chicken or ‘Better & Happier Choice’. After devouring my KFC and beer, I walked through Myeongdong night market before heading back to the hotel for a much-needed sleep.
On the following day I met a fellow badminton umpire from France (who flew into Seoul earlier that morning) at Seoul train station and we hopped on a KTX express train to Yeosu together. The 3.5-hour ride had some delays but travelling on the train gave us opportunity to see the Korean landscape.
When we arrived at Yeousu, a coastal gem nestled in South Jeolla Province, we were greeted with heavy rainfall. Thankfully we were picked up from the train station and brought to The Venezia Resort Hotel, our home for the week. As we weren’t required until the briefing on Monday afternoon, the foreign umpires took this opportunity to explore the city of Yeousu.
On Monday afternoon we had our briefing held at a neighouring hotel where we got to meet the referee team and the rest of the technical officials. After this, we were whisked to the venue where some equipment was still being installed. As this is the first time the Korean Open is held in Yeosu, the organisers had to check everything was in placed ready for the start of the tournament.
The next day, the Jinnam Stadium, our battleground for the badminton showdown, came to life with enthusiastic spectators (with capacity for 1,500 people). Our umpire team, an eclectic mix of talent from France, Estonia, The Netherlands, Japan, Malaysia, India, and England (yours truly), forged a harmonious bond with our line judges, who all hailed from Korea.
As the tournament kicked off, mornings were forgiving, allowing us to start play at 10 am on four courts. By Wednesday, I umpired one of the shortest matches I ever had with the player retiring at 1-1 in the first game due to a previous injury. On the third day, Thursday, the matches started at 9 am on three courts. Early risings tested even the most punctual of umpires, but we embraced the challenge with a smile. And Quarter-Finals on Friday drifted very quickly where I was lucky enough to umpire An Se Young, world number 1 in Women’s Singles, who won against her fellow countrywoman, Sim Yu Jin. As the quarter-finals culminated on Friday, the local umpires treated us to a heartwarming gesture of Korean fried chicken and beer, fostering camaraderie and laughter as we shared stories and celebrated our love for the sport
For the semi-finals, I had the privilege to umpire the Men's Singles where Kodai Naraoka faced off against Loh Kean Yew, took us on a thrilling rollercoaster ride of hawk-eye challenges. After the matches were completed, Saturday evening was a delightful affair, as we gathered at the Nangman Pocha Yeosu Pocha, a charming restaurant nestled along the Yeosu marina. Overlooking the elegant bridge and the iconic Hamel Lighthouse, we relished local seafood dishes, reliving the thrilling moments of the tournament. Grateful for the hospitality, we thanked our Korean counterparts, cherishing the memories of newfound friendships.
As the tournament reached its crescendo, I had the privilege to be selected as a service judge to the Men's Doubles Final with Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty (from India), claiming victory over Indonesia's Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto. Their resounding triumph ignited the stadium, and history was etched in every cheer that reverberated.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. My journey concluded with a flight from Yeosu airport to Seoul Gimpo on Asiana Airlines, accompanied by a fellow local umpire. We wandered the city centre of Seoul, exploring Gyeongbokgung Palace and savouring the sights and sounds of the bustling Insa-dong market. As London's cold embrace welcomed me back, I couldn't help but reminisce about the warmth and wet weather of South Korea.
My first voyage as an umpire in Asia had been nothing short of enchanting, a voyage filled with laughter, camaraderie, and badminton brilliance, and I am grateful for the privilege to explore this wondrous corner of the world. With a heart brimming with gratitude, I look forward to the next thrilling chapter in my globetrotting adventures.