Viktor Axelsen

On the podium at the All England 2020. Screenshot from BWF TV

“I’m both happy and really emotional – it’s just crazy”

Viktor Axelsen after victory at the All England 2020

Viktor’s win over CHOU Tien Chen at the All England was roared on by thousands of fans watching in the arena and all over the world.  He became the first Danish man this century to win the Men’s Singles title and there is no doubt that he is the most successful European player in world badminton at the moment. 

Axelsen had come through a tough twelve months before taking his place at the top of the podium in Birmingham in 2020.  Back in March 2019 he was the beaten finalist; conquered in three sets by Kento Momota.  The Japanese #1 played beautifully controlled badminton and Viktor just could not impose his strategy upon the match.  He fought hard but failed.  Later that month he won the India Open, in April he was knocked out at the semi-final stage of the Singapore Open – again by Momota –  and in May, he represented Denmark at the Sudirman Cup.

Then, for a while, it seemed as though he had done something to anger the badminton Gods.  Firstly, allergies struck.  According to some reports he was suffering quite severe hayfever and his breathing was affected.  He had to pull out of the European Games. Then he stunned his supporters with the news in July that he had to withdraw indefinitely from competition owing to chronic pain in his leg.  It was a persistent injury with no obvious end in sight; it meant he was absent from Istora and we all wondered when or even if, we would see him back on court.

Any elite player who can compete without pain is an exception.  We have all spotted our favourites playing with strapping; often the tape is flesh coloured. so it isn’t too obvious but it is still there.  Similarly, a post-match press conference without applied ice is unusual.  Badminton is such a physically demanding sport.  Men’s Singles strategy requires the competitors to exert maximum movement pressure upon each other.  Speed and instantaneous changes of direction are foundations of success.  Although niggles can be endured, an injury like Viktor’s had to be healed before he could return.

Summer passed and September saw him re-emerge into the game.  It was with relief that we saw him playing with no obvious problems.  Not only that, he was still a top 10 player who could equal pretty much anyone apart from Momota on court. He started putting together some momentum and appeared in 2 Semi Finals in Oct, the new year saw this improvement continue and he arrived at the YAE with no obvious injury worries.

His tournament began very smoothly and VA reached his SF without dropping a set.  This game against the up and coming LEE Zii Jia was a ferocious battle.  The Malaysian has been tipped by LEE Chong Wei as a live hope for a medal at the next Olympics but he was playing at his first All England.  Axelsen struggled to contain his lightening speed and aggression.  It got to 19-19 in the final set and ‘that’ point.  Victor had to really sweat for his place in the final but he pushed home and secured it.

The final was set up.  CTC awaited.

From the moment Viktor stepped onto the Minoru Yoneyama court he dominated the match.  His aggression and pressure were irresistible and there were times when CTC just could not get into the rallies.  As points flew by CHOU Tien Chen was powerless to stop Axelsen’s impetus.  The Danes drive and desire, his determination to seize this opportunity was formidable.

Viktor is a competitor who wears his heart on his sleeve, and what is more, the last year has been an emotional rollercoaster. His career has had plenty of high points; he was World Champion in 2017, plus he won Bronze at the Rio Olympics but the All England is a special tournament.   He becomes the first Danish man since Peter Gade to hold the title so it was no surprise to see his overwhelming elation when he won.  It is his first Super 1000 title and when badminton restarts it’s going to be fascinating to see where his ambition can take him; for sure he must be hungry to get back onto a court and take his place amongst the best in the world.


This article first appeared on the Yonex All England website https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/

If you enjoyed this you may like this one about Anthony Ginting https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/25/anthony-sinisuka-ginting/ or this about Kento Momota https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/27/kento-momota/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Yonex All England 2020 Review

This was a competition that favoured players who could keep focus and grab opportunities. There is a joy to badminton that we all recognise and these are the times when we should celebrate happiness and curate our memories of watching the greatest tournament in our sport.

“Before its 21 anything can happen”

Praveen Jordan
The moment of victory for PraMel
Mixed Doubles – Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti

The XD was an unexpected pleasure this year. Top seeds fell by the wayside and we arrived at Saturday night with the home favourites Lauren Smith/Marcus Ellis facing Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti for a place in the final. The first set went to form – PraMel were shrewdly pulling Ellis out of position to neutralise his threat – but in the second the Brits held their nerve, saved two match points and roared on by the crowd forced the match to a decider. Praveen is notoriously unpredictable, however the hoohah around ‘time wasting’ and ‘being ready’ which resulted in an undeserved yellow card definitely lit a flame and the last game was a more comfortable 21-11 victory. The Indonesians were quicker and cleverer and deserved to progress.

No Thai player has ever won an All England title so Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai were staring down the barrel of history. They are a strong, fast pair and this was a match for all XD devotees. It ebbed and flowed but the balance of power was decided at the net. Praveen is such an imposing, athletic partner; he reached everything, his smash was vicious so this freed Melati to damage the Thai pair again and again. Even if she couldn’t score she keep the attacking momentum. Bass/Popor grabbed the second set but had given too much and were beaten 21-8 at the last.

Winning an All England title is the mark of a special player and Praveen Jordan has now won two with two separate partners.

Men’s Doubles – Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe

This sector was lit up by the brilliance of Yuta Watanabe. He is faster than a flash. His net interceptions, his resilience and strength were irresistable. For his partner, it was a fourth appearance in the MD final, the first with his new partner and another chance to win the title that has eluded him.

This match sparkled. Gideon & Sukamuljo – world #1 – have already won the title twice but in the last year have consistently lost to the Japanese duo. The pace was superhuman. There was little to choose between these two teams as the intensity increased. No one cracked, no one avoided responsibility, here were four athletes trying everything to succeed. In the final set the Minions trailed 0-6, at the break they had pulled it back to 9-11. Marcus and Kevin bombarded Yuta & Hiroyuki in the last points but the Japanese held firm under incredible pressure. In the end the Japanese pair won the title. They deserved to win but Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. It was a priviledge to watch.

Women’s Singles – Tai Tzu Ying

The Queen is the Queen.

All of TTY’s fans must have anticipated this tournament with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew she had enjoyed success in January with the Begaluru Raptors and it was clear she was focusing on key competition in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. Her committment and strategy were perfect and in a repeat of 2019 she met CHEN Yufei in the final. This time the honours went to the Queen. (a longer appreciation of TTY’s progress through the YAE will be appearing on this blog as a standalone piece).

Follow the link here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/

Women’s Doubles – Yuki Fukushima & Sayaka Hirota

All week Fukuhiro had been focused with a quiet confidence. This match had them in dominant form with Hirota especially dazzling with her interceptions at the net. Early on they were finding space with long cross-court precise shots. Their movement around court was fluent as they continued to pressurize DU/LI and raced to a 10-4 lead. The Chinese pair were struggling to find space but they gradually slowed the Fukihiro momentum to get to 9-14.

Hirota’s competitive vision and her ability to get to the shuttle at pace meant that DU/LI could not challenge the control the Japanese pair had. Fukushima was equally aggressive and her appetite for smashing – especially XC – was significant in keeping DU/LI ‘s ambitions down. The Japanese pair secured the title in two sets and they were worthy winners.

Men’s Singles – Viktor Axelsen

Axelsen demolished the #1 seed CHOU Tien Chen in two sets. No games at this level are ‘easy’ but Viktor bulldozed his way through it whilst CTC will want to forget his error strewn match. The Dane grabbed his opportunity and after such a tricky 2019 disrupted by injury and allergies it’s fair to say he is getting back to his best.

Follow the link here to read a more in depth piece I wrote about Viktor for the Yonex All England website https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/news/in-depth-i-viktor-axelsen/

I feel that this sector was dominated by players who were absent as much as those who competed. We all know the situation Momota is in. I was astonished by the exit of Ginting and Christie in R1. I watched Ginting’s match and he simply had no answers to Gemke, he could not raise his level to get any foothold in the game. Frustratingly, another YAE passes him by.

The unseeded LEE Zii Jia was one of the stars of the tournament and it was Christie’s misfortune to meet him in R1. LEE looks hungry. He is athletic, explosive and speedy around the court – I think he may fancy his chances at the Olympics.


This year’s tournament was buffeted by external forces out of the control of the players and these, of course, will be a huge part of all our lives for the next few months. All of the athletes must, to some extent, have been affected by anxieties. Firstly, would it even go ahead? Secondly would they get home? Despite this it was drenched in quality right from the start and the right people won.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my article about Fukuhiro by following this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/

I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the competition. As well as the athletes/coaches/support staff there is a huge group of people behind the scenes including the Badminton England volunteers. I’d particularly like to mention Jan in the media centre – always cheerful, professional and kind.

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2020 pt 2

Doubles: The Bonfire of My Anxieties

Doubles is intense, it is the supreme embodiment of badminton. Fierce battles rage across the court; pace, power and guile form the contours of the match. The finest tournament in the world has an extra pressure this time around because it is Olympic year: many still strive to win enough ranking points to compete in Tokyo. This is great news for fans who love drama and stress but if you need a quiet life…look away now!

“Two people until the end, do not regret” Matsutomo

Indonesia

The magnificent MD athletes from Indonesia simply shine on every stage. Intensity, resilience and desire add up to some wonderful players.

The 2019 title holders – Mohammad Ahsan & Hendra Setiawan – famously won on 3 legs last year after an all-consuming final. I love them. They are outstanding players and incredible ambassadors for the sport. They have every chance of playing in the final so long as they carefully manage their old legs.

Gideon & Sukamuljo are top seeds and have a heavy weight of expectation loaded on their shoulders. At their best, with Marcus as reliable foundation and Kevin riffing around him they are simply unbeatable. Gorgeous shots, dazzling reactions and relentless athleticism raise the sport to heights few others can aspire to.

Fajar Alfian & Muhammad Rian Ardianto are seeded 5 and got to the Semi Final last year. Their high energy explosive game puts them firmly in the ‘fast ‘n’ furious’ camp; they should still be in the competiton by finals weekend.

If we consider WD then Greysia Polii & Apri Rahayu have had a great start to 2020 and if they play in the same way that took them to victory at the Indonesia Masters they will get to the semi-finals. I think they are more successful when Apri is decisive at the forecourt. I’ve mentioned before that their game and competitive strategy is evolving. Her power and confidence means they can really dominate rallies – they shouldn’t resort to defensive clears as a default tactic. I think they were fortunate to win the Spanish Masters because there were times when their gameplan slipped back to the 2019 version of themselves. The other Indonesian pair, Ramadhanti & Sugiarto, are in the same part of the draw as Greyap.

Greysap on their way to victory at the Indonesian Masters. Screenshot BWF

Japan

Park Joo-Bong – the legendary head coach – has overseen Japanese players challenge the traditional Chinese dominance in all sectors. This often means that their biggest rivals are each other.

As far as WD is concerned we are in the heart-rending position of knowing that only 2 out of the 3 top pairs from Japan are going to qualify to play in their home Olympics. The quest for points overshadows tournaments and I think the risk is that the four players who make the cut will be mentally exhausted by the time July arrives. That said, a win at the All England could virtually cement some players positions. Matsumoto & Nagahara are seeded 2 and were runners-up in 2019. Fukushima & Hirota are third seeds and are desperate to progress. And so we come to Matsutomo & Takahashi who are seeded 7 in Birmingham. Can the defending Olympic Champions get a podium finish? They need to focus every atom of experience and desire because they have a hard road to the final which includes a possible CHEN/JIA QF followed by compatriots who need success too. This is another pair who need to look after old legs.

The two main MD pairs Sonoda/Kamura and Endo/Watanabe are consistently excellent players who have to compete in a sector stuffed with Indonesian brilliance. I particularly like the fast and furious style of Sonoda/Kamura but that’s not enough to beat Marcus and Kevin. It’s possible either pair could get to a SF and then anything could happen, particularly if they can be more unpredictable with the pace they attack at.

Keigo Sonoda from BWF TV

China

Some say that China is not the dominant force it’s been in the past yet Chinese athletes are defending 3 titles at the All England this year. The strength is in the women’s sector; for now, the men are being eclipsed by the depth of other nation’s squads.

#1 Seeds and WD defending Champions CHEN Qingchen & JIA Yifan are aggressive, tough players. They are great at ratcheting up the pressure on their opponents: they can zero in on a victim with pitiless ferocity by using hard flat drives and fast smashes. Who can stop them winning? DU Yue & LI YinHui are seeded 6th but it’s hard to see them getting as far as the weekend.

There’s only one seeded pair in the MD: LI Junhui & LIU Yuchen – China used to be such a powerhouse but now the talented players in Indonesia and Japan dominate the rankings. Li & Liu are clever athletes; they can play a power game but they are also capable of varying the tempo and this can cause frustration for players like Sukamuljo. It can be a very smart tactic to break up the flow of the game against the Minions. It’s been pointed out that if Li/Liu run out of ideas they resort to a monotonous smashing game; that isn’t going to work in the big arena. Realistically I think they are going to struggle to get beyond QF.

Korea?

Korea’s WD players are experiencing a similar headache to their Japanese counterparts. As things stand there are still 4 pairs who could qualify for Tokyo. In Birmingham Lee So-Hee/Shin Seung-chang and Kim So-yeong/Kong Hee-yong are seeded 5 and 6 and look to be most likely to challenge. The drama over the past few weeks has been around the MD/XD player Seo Seung-jae who was suspended then not suspended by his national association (BKA) following confusion around sponsorship deals he had signed. It seemed disproportionate to punish his partners and destroy their hopes for this year so I’m glad he’s back in the mix.

Realistically I think we can only say that the WD teams have an outside chance of medals owing to the strength of the opposition. However, it’s interesting to observe that Korean badminton coaches enjoy plenty of success working away from home. I’ve already mentioned Park Joo-Bong and Japan, there is also Kang Kyung-jin who works with the Chinese squad plus Coach Kim who worked in India with PV Sindhu in the period she became World Champion.

Conclusions

China, Japan and Indonesia look set to see off opposition from the other nations for the doubles crowns. I adore following doubles; the tactics, tempo and talent mean that for fans the spectacle is second-to-none. The spine-tingling experience of watching the spotlit pairs as they play for glory at the All England is a joy. Ahsan & Setiawan had a fantastic 2019 and it would be wonderful to see them defend their title. As the tournament progresses, the tension will rise, legs will tire and towards the end it’s mental strength and an athletes appetite for the fight that gets them to the podium. May the best team win!


My preview of the WS part of the tournament is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/03/yonex-all-england-2020-pt1/

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my article about Polii and Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ and this one about Kevin & Marcus https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2020 pt1

Women’s Singles

Welcome to the greatest badminton tournament in the world. This is the one that all elite players want to win and the one that fans from around the world long to attend. A dislocated build-up to this tournament will undoubtedly have tested players focus. All of us have fretted about the coronavirus and the postponement of the German Open will have disrupted the training plans of some.

Winning this tournament is never a fluke; years have been spent training for these games. All those drills, the weights, the sweat have all been leading to the moment when the competitors walk onto the court in Birmingham and begin.

We are in the Golden Age of women’s badminton. This is the zesty sector, full of talent and excitement, the top 20 players is a corps of excellence drawn from around the world. CHEN Yufei is the current holder of the title and there are 3 other ex-champions TAI Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara taking part as well.

Badminton immortality beckons – who will answer the call?

TAI Tzu Ying – Seeded 2 – Champion in 2017 & 2018

At the core of TTY is the desire to sparkle not to merely play. No-one has the technical mastery she brings to the court; the breathtaking shots she executes are simply magnificent. Her vision and creative energy elevates her game to a level of brilliance that we expect of a genuine great of the game. Her achilles heel is her lack of consistency: sometimetime her focus can wander, I think she can sometimes be bored into losing a game. Her participation in the PBL in January was a clever way to undertake a segment of training; it allowed her to hit with new partners, get match practice and enjoy herself. It’s been pointed out that perhaps playing games only up to 15 points may help her concentration – well, we’ll see! Rumours that she plans to retire after the Tokyo Olympics are adding an extra sense of desire from fans who just want to see the QUEEN win everything. Prediction Final

From BWF TV
Nozomi Okuhara – Seeded 4 – Champion in 2016

Nozomi’s 2019 synchronised hope and despair – her fans watched so many finals that ended with Silver. She knows what it takes to win in Birmingham and possibly the hall conditions will help but she has to be the boss a bit more frequently. I want to see her snap up points. Patience is such a cornerstone of her tactics but to be effective it must be used alongside impatience, unpredictability and aggression. Sometimes we see flashes of a more attacking player and if she could get this part of her strategy right it would make the difference between winning and coming second. There are no easy games at Super 1000 level but she has the ability to get right to the final.

CHEN Yufei – Seeded 1 – Champion 2019

The defending champion has enjoyed an excellent win streak since her victory last March. After the All England she appeared in six finals and was unbeaten. Despite her status as top seed she has a very difficult route to finals weekend. In R1 she faces Korean Wonderkid AN Se Young, R2 will be Busanan or Blichfeldt and QF could be Ratchanok. She is an even more resilient player than last year; she has high fitness levels, great patience and solid technique. It’s her patience in games that proves to be such a key weapon. Opponents have to be very sure of their own stamina to equal her, she will often soak up pressure throughout the match before ambushing her rival in the last few points. Prediction Quarter Final.

Ratchanok Intanon – Seeded 5 – Runner Up 2017

Ratchanok often employs a ‘do or die’ approach and I adore her for that. A wonderful win at Istora in the Indonesia Masters final against Marin over 3 sets settled my nerves about her resilience so I think she has an outside chance here. A possible QF against CHEN Yufei awaits; she must not let CYF bore her into losing the match! Prediction Semi Final, Go May!

Saina Nehwal – Unseeded – Runner Up 2015

Desperately seeking points to secure her fourth (yes, fourth) Olympic spot Saina has a dangerous R1 clash with Akane to begin. To have any chance of progressing she must start well; to her credit since her QF exit at the Spanish Masters she has been training in Denmark. She identified her movement on court as one of the reasons for underperformance last year and it’s true she has often lacked fluency. If she has addressed this weakness then her shrewd gameplay will have a solid foundation. She is a tenacious fighter and even if Akane dispatches her I still don’t think her Olympic hopes are finished. Prediction: it’s not over

AN Se Young – Unseeded

The dynamic, dangerous prospect from Korea could pose some serious questions to CHEN Yufei in R1. This tie could go either way; CYF should have enough resilience and experience to get over the line but I’m not certain of this result. In the past ASY seems to falter as the cumulative efect of hard games pile up. I think this is only because she is young, soon it will not be a problem. She could beat CYF but I don’t think she’ll win the title.

P V Sindhu – Seeded 6 – Rio Olympics 2016 Silver Medal

Sindhu’s underwhelming performances since her magnificent triumph at the World Championships in Basle have often been explained by the phrase ‘big tournament player’. Her motivation – if that is the problem – should not be an issue here. Like TTY she also particiated in the PBL so it will be interesting to see if the different vibes around playing for the franchise team had a positive effect. At her best she will annihilate her opponent with a savage exhibition of pressure badminton, at her worst she can crash out in R1. Beiwen Zhang is her first challenger and that is a match that could go either way.

Akane Yamaguchi – Seeded 3 – Runner Up 2018

I hope that Akane’s triumph at the Thailand Masters means that the fitness issues that have been dragging her down since last August are conquered. That final was against AN Se Young who just seemed to run out of ideas. More importantly though, Akane did not run out of legs. BirdJapan has such a colossal few months coming up it’s vital that she regains the form she had back in July 2019. I think her performance in this competition will be the first indication of what we can expect at the Uber Cup and then at the Olympics. Prediction: Semi

Carolina Marin – Seeded 8 – Champion 2015 & Rio Olympics 2016 Gold Medal.

After a ghastly 2019 dominated by her ACL rupture and rehab Caro has returned to competition and is back on court. Noisiness is part of the strategy, she likes to dominate the space physically and aurally, it contributes to unsettling her opponents. She has not won a title this year yet and I was shocked that she lost the Spain Masters to Pornpawee Chochuwong. This was a well-worked victory, Marin’s ability to deal with a gruelling three set match was questioned and Chochuwong exploited cross-court opportunities really effectively. Prediction QF.

Conclusions

Women’s Singles is choc-a-bloc with talent; the quality of the unseeded players competing here means that upsets and shocks are inevitable. The Yonex All England is a critical showcase for athletes in Olympic year and success here could mean participation in Tokyo is guaranteed. I’m not neutral, I hope the Women’s Singles title is won by the player who is adored around the world and whose style sums up the joy that is fundamental to her game. If this is TAI Tzu Ying’s last championship then I would love to see her on the podium. There have been distractions and anxieties but now is the time to focus on sport.


Follow this link for part 2 of my preview covering doubles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/06/yonex-all-england-2020-pt-2/

If you enjoyed this preview take a look at my blog about TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/16/tai-tzu-ying-the-queen/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2019. Definitely not village hall badminton

The Yonex All England is an unbelievable show: its where the world’s top players want to make history and where we all want to watch it happen. The arena is dark except for spotlights when the players emerge, the crowd is noisy and the intensity is often unbearable.

So, to my highlights of 2019

Video courtesy of Badminton England

The WD semi-final between Hirota/Fukushima and Chen/Jia was an epic physical battle. Right from the start both pairs tried to seize a place in the final. The Chinese duo were ferocious with their attacking smashes; Hirota and Fukushima kept getting the shuttle back but…two, three, four smashes in a row, it was just too much for them to live with. This happened point after point. I didn’t expect that Chen and Jia had the strength to play like this through the entire match. I was wrong. They dominated and they won.

On to the final where they faced Matsumoto and Nagahara, who kept hitting the shuttle up. Clever tactics to exploit tiredness or injury after the exertions of the day before? Nope. After three brutal games Chen and Jia were champions, they deserved it.

I loved watching Viktor Axelsen win his semi-final against Shi as did all the boisterous Danes watching from the seats around me. We were caught up in the charged atmosphere as the match ebbed and flowed. Yes, he did smash at 418kph; I can’t believe I saw it. Shi kept pushing and pushing to try and get back into the game but in the end was beaten.

It’s over for another year. A great spectacle where the worldwide badminton community comes together to support the elite. Congratulations to the winners, and congratulations to those people working behind the scenes to make it such a success. It is definitely not village hall badminton.

Current Status: EXCITED

What’s so good about the Yonex All England Championships?

It’s the chance to be inside a buzzing arena and witness sporting history being made. Will the exciting Japanese duo of Fukushima and Hirota justify their seeding at number 1? Or could another women’s doubles pair rise to challenge them?

For me, nothing compares to live matches. Firstly it’s a shared emotional experience. In Birmingham there will be about 15000 people brought together and we all want to see success and feel as though we played our part in it. I think that watching on TV simply doesn’t come close – it’s like comparing eating chocolates to just looking at the box. Getting caught up in the drama of the moment is a welcome escape from subjects like Brexit, terrible weather and single-use plastics.

This is the world’s best badminton competition and anyone who has ever picked up a racket will be stunned by the quality of the action. Excellence is not an accident though, no-one succeeds in this tournament just by turning up. Failure, sweat and hard, hard work will all contribute to eventual triumph.

I find there is a bittersweet joy in following sport; especially if emotions are tied to a particular performer or country. Tournaments can be a peculiar kind of torture when we stagger from one day to the next, not quite sure how things will end but not able to walk away. Dare we expect the unexpected?