Consider this: just over a year ago, Viktor Axelsen became the first European to claim the No 1 spot since Peter Gade (2006). The booming smashes, sturdy defence, mixed with a fair share of aggression had indicated the beginning of Axelsen's rise. He outmuscled the top dogs and looked destined to take over from the Chinese. That precious, boyish delight on his face after becoming the world champion still remains one of the iconic moments in badminton.
The meticulous strokes and his exceptional range earned him the India Open, World Championships, Japan Open and year-ending Dubai World Superseries Finals titles in a jiffy. And it didn’t end there. Axelsen’s headline-grabbing show earned him the Malaysia Masters early in 2018 and a gold medal at the European Championships in April. The Dane’s technical abilities established him as a world-beater at just 23!
Cut to 2019. 14 months apart, Axelsen has now slipped to No 6 and is grinding a return to the circuit. While he kept bringing his opponents to their knees, his ankles couldn’t take the burden.
What followed next was a series of injuries to his left foot, especially the ankle. However, it wasn’t the injuries that derailed his ambitious run. “2018 was a rough year. I started out getting injured towards the end of 2017, then I had the right ankle to deal with as I tried to overcompensate, meant I couldn’t train well. I haven't actually thought about last year. The ankle injury, later on, set me back. After my surgery in February, it has been a struggle to come back,” Axelsen told Firstpost earlier in January. There was something more than just injuries that led to his downward trajectory where he only managed to compete in just 10 tournaments in comparison to 2017 where he played 15.
As bizarre as it may sound, the Danish summer coupled with pollen allergies curtailed the intensity of his gameplay to an extent where the lanky Dane couldn’t get into the rhythm whenever he took the court. “The Danish summer was really hot. So, the temperature went high and the humidity level was up. It triggered my health. Plus I wasn't on any medication. I thought that I had overcome the issues.”
Except, he hadn’t. Axelsen underwent ankle surgery in February but his performances hit a downward slope. After the end of the Danish summer, asthma started to flare up again and by the end of November, the breathing issues became a stumbling block. “I realised that asthma had flared up during the China Open. It was the same case at the Korea Open.” Was it also overcompensation? “I think I compensated a little bit and then, in the long run, it caused some issues. It's really frustrating. Like that's just how it is, you know? But when you spend so much time on one thing and then you suddenly can't do it. It's a really, really frustrating. There's nothing more to do than just try to focus on the stuff you actually can do rather than focus on all the things you're missing out on. So control what you can control,” the 24-year-old said.
Meanwhile, like time, men’s singles circuit too doesn’t wait for anybody. It had moved on. Japan’s Kento Momota dismantled every single top-ranked shuttler en route No 1 crown. That comeback from a one-year suspension was heroic, to say the least. Chou Tien Chen and Son Wan Ho’s defensive masterclass rattled many. Young shuttlers Anthony Ginting and Jonatan Christie made Indonesia proud. Kidambi Srikanth, like Axelsen, didn’t ruffle many feathers. “Momota’s talent, Son Wan Ho’s stability, Chen Long’s determination, Srikanth’s skills. They’re all world-class players,” said Axelsen, who sees this open men’s singles field as a blessing to the sport.
“Definitely, I think it's a really exciting time right now due to a lot of players, who are coming up and doing well. A lot of players could win the tournament. Chong Wei, unfortunately, ran into the health issues. He was also playing fine.”
Despite staying out, he never took his eye off badminton. While he was recuperating and rehabilitating, he didn't watch any other sport other than badminton and brushed up on his Chinese. “My Chinese is getting steady, a lot more stable now. I'm at a level where I don't necessarily have to practice every single day. I can keep it at a pretty okay level, listening to Chinese podcast or Chinese radio or talking to the players on a regular basis," he said.
It makes every fan wonder whether Axelsen would benefit from Chinese. “Not really,” he said with a cheeky smile. “It was only once where I just overheard the Chinese coaches talking about tactics a little bit. It hasn't really helped me on the court. I think it's more the question of all the fact that I got to learn a new language that helps me learn the traditions and how people approach. It’s so different from Denmark. So, it becomes interesting.”
Back home, Axelsen’s daily route also included visiting doctors and physiotherapists to recuperate from the damaging effects of the injury and asthma. “It sucks to sit out and do nothing. I had surgery, saw specialists of a given field and trained a little bit. I knew what I had to do. I'm on asthma medication now. I had to be, otherwise, it would cause unnecessary issues. It's not good to go around with asthma without getting treated,” he explained.
At the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in January this year, Axelsen could get results in his favour. He could dictate his body just the way he wanted to. But staying away from his friends and family during Christmas for the third straight year bothered him a little. However, he was grateful to India for offering the breathing space he needed before entering the crazy year of Olympic qualification. “I’ve been spending all my birthdays and Christmases here in India playing the league. Those are special days and I want to be with friends and family having breakfast at home, but here I am. I enjoy coming to India,” he said.
Although the Ahmedabad Smash Masters and Axelsen had a rather disappointing season, Axelsen seems to envisage a stable 2019. “I'm getting into the groove now. I think that the last three or four weeks, it's the first time, almost the whole year where I've been able to actually practice consistently. So to be honest, I haven't really been able to put together a training block and all during 2018. So, right now I'm feeling like this the only time where I actually had an opportunity to practice continuously.”
Practising consistently without any hiccups did reap rewards as the fit-again Axelsen bounced back to win a first BWF title in over a year, at the Barcelona Masters last week. It was a morale-boosting victory against compatriot Anders Antonsen, who won the Indonesia Masters last month, beating World No 1 Momota in the final. “I felt good on court, I played close to my highest level at the moment, which I’m pleased about. It’s a while since I managed to play well in an important match like this, so I’m happy right now,” he told the BWF after the match.
Having missed out on the All England last year, the Dane finally has a chance to take the much-awaited shot at the prestigious title against some of the best shuttlers. “I still feel I can up my game a bit during the next week. I came here still being in heavy training, so I have a week to rest and fine-tune some different things, and I hope I will be even better around ten days from now at the All England. It’s good to get some self-confidence. I’m more confident in my game in the fact that what I’m doing is working well,” he added.
The gangling Dane faces India’s Sameer Verma, who was the only standout player for the country last season, in the first round in Birmingham. Same time last year, the service rule came in effect at the All England. Axelsen had famously expressed his displeasure over the ‘ridiculous’ rule. One year down, he says he’s still not a fan. “The service gauge is bad and relies on what angle you see it from. Now we are almost squatting down. You don’t lower the basket in basketball just to level things out, do you?”
Nevertheless, after having undergone special training arrangements to get used to the new service rule and a stuttering 14-month stint, a matured Axelsen wants to approach the crucial year of 2019 with a clear focus on Olympics.
“Viktor of 2020 will be wiser than Viktor of 2016,” he concluded. He's no longer a rookie, after all.
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Updated Date: Mar 05, 2019 00:06:27 IST