Matthew Cheung clinches his first senior Ulster title

A huge debt of gratitude is due to tournament referee William Martin and his team last weekend as tournament badminton returned with the Ulster Premier Open to the National Badminton Centre in Lisburn, writes Brian Kelly.

Matthew Cheung who won his first Ulster Senior title and then won a second for good measure

Bereft of tournament badminton for so long, players put on a display of what we all have been sorely missing.

Alpha’s Tony Stephenson has been without doubt THE outstanding Men’s Singles and Men’s Doubles player in the province over the past decade but, unseeded, his opening match was against the top seeded Jack O’Brien.

With Tony’s pedigree and record in this competition very few can match, he was to face the top seed in the opening round.

Matthew Cheung shares a joke with Ulster Badminton's William Martin

Having lifted the singles crown in 2012, 2014, January 2015, March 2015, 2016, 2017 he also clinched the men’s doubles crown with Tony Murphy in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

TONY GOES ONE SET UP

Stephenson was though to get off to what other lesser mortals might have described as a disastrous start finding himself 6-0 in arrears only to steadily climb back to level at 8-all in the opening set.

The lead changed hands regularly in a tight opening set before Stephenson clinched it 21-18 without too much concern.

Matthew Cheung and Stewart McCollam returned home from England laden with medals but last weekend they were on opposite sides of the net in the final of the Ulster Premier Open with Matthew partnering Sean Patrick Laureta to the Men's Doubles title with Stuart having partnered Ryan Stewart to the silver medal

The second was level at 4 all before Stephenson took nine points in a row and was in total control to take the match 21-12.

Next up for Stephenson was Daniel O’Meara who had come through a tight contest with Chris Cochrane , eventually booking a clash against Stephenson 21-19 21-16, but the Alpha player was to ease through 21-15 21-19 to face Sean Patrick Laureta, the No4 seed, in the semi-final.

It was however the No4 seed who was somewhat unexpectedly to race to the opening set 21-16 with Stephenson pondering what to do next.

But Stephenson always a calm and collected individual, took the match into a deciding set, winning the second 21-15 before romping home 21-9 with the outcome just short of the half-hour mark.

Matthew (front) is pictured with former Irish number one Bill Thompson

Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw Ryan Stewart upset the No2 seed Tony Crowley 21-16 18-21 21-19 and booked his passage into the semi-final with a straightforward win over Steven Wainwright who had come back from one set down to Alpha’s Jack Armstrong to squeeze through 23-21 24-22.

Next up for Stewart in the semi was Matthew Cheung who had ended the hopes of Alpha and Ulster clubmate Tony Murphy 21-12 21-12.

Sixteen-year-old Cheung, unquestionably one of Ireland’s finest prospects in the game at the moment, eased through the opening set 21-7 only for Stewart to fight back in the second and it was a rather relieved Cheung who edged through to book his place in the final 24-22.

CHEUNG BIDS FOR FIRST

SENIOR ULSTER TITLE

Typically the final was a tight affair of the highest order with both players at their best, not wishing to give anything away and the younger Cheung seeking to lift the coveted Ulster singles title for the first time, even though he has suffered a few injuries of late.

The opening set saw RBAI pupil Cheung edge ahead to clinch it 21-16 and as the second was ebbing closer to its conclusion, Stephenson in a pre-coronovirus era would undoubtedly have taken it into a deciding set.

But Cheung was to see it out 21-19 to lift his first Ulster Men’s Singles crown…at the ripe old age of 16 and at the end of a week when his studies at RBAI had to take a priority.

CHEUNG IN DOUBLES WIN TOO

The Men’s Doubles is always one of the most keenly fought competitions and one in which Alpha players have excelled in and this year’s Ulster Premier Open maintained that degree of excellence.

Top seeds Jack O’Brien and Callum Thomas were however to make their exit in the semi-final when Stewart McCollam and Ryan Stewart came back from losing the opening set 21-13 to book their place in the final by dominating their opponents and taking the next two sets 21-10 21-14 in just 32 minutes.

In the bottom half of the draw Matthew Cheung and Sean Patrick Laureta were expected to meet Tony Murphy and Tony Stephenson in the semi-final and that is the way the draw developed.

However a fact which was to contribute to the ultimate outcome was that in the quarter-final clash between Murphy/Stephenson and Brian O’Mahony/Daniel O’Meara this clash was to last an energy sapping 42 minutes with the former pair capturing the opening set 22-20, losing the second 19-21 and the decider finishing in favour of the Murphy/Stephenson partnership 21-18.

The subsequent semi-final against Cheung/Laureta however was to be halted after just EIGHT minutes due to Tony Murphy suffering from severe cramp and unable to continue.

With Cheung/Lauretta going through to the final, their unseeded opponents Stuart McCollam/Ryan Stewart could not have wished for a better start, taking the set 21-13 and were poised to take the title only to lose the second set narrowly 21-19, only for the Cheung/Laureta partnership to take control of the decider to secure the title 21-11 after 34 minutes.