BWF World Tour Finals: Tai Tzu Ying, Anders Antonsen crack aura of invincibility around Carolina Marin, Viktor Axelsen
Long-reigning World No.1 Tai Tzu Ying matched Carolina Marin’s scorching pace, pinned her repeatedly on her slightly vulnerable backhand baseline to come from 17-19 down in the decider to win 14-21, 21-8, 21-19
Going into the title round of the BWF World Tour Finals, two rejuvenated, back-from-surgery players, Spain’s Carolina Marin and Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen, had managed to build an aura of invincibility around themselves over the course of three tournaments played at the Impact Arena, Bangkok, during the immediately preceding three weeks.
By the end of the two singles finals, both of which went the full distance, the lofty aspirations of both these former world champions lay in ruins. While an unusually timid Axelsen ended up beating himself, as it were, it required a very special player, and a total revamp of match strategy, to rein in the feisty left-handed Spaniard, and prevent her from winning her third title on as many Sundays in January.
Long-reigning World No.1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, took the bull by the horns, matched Marin’s scorching pace, pinned her repeatedly on her slightly vulnerable backhand baseline, and exhibited enormous mental strength in coming back from a 17-19 deficit in the decider of their memorable 67-minute battle-royal, to pip the Spanish southpaw at the tape, by a 14-21, 21-8, 21-19 scoreline.
“Finally, I won,” said the 26 year old Taiwanese ace, relief clear on her face after winning her third 'season-ending' title. “This victory is significant because I had to really maintain focus. Marin forces a lot of pressure as she is fast. If I lose a bit of focus, the gap becomes big and very hard to chase down. I needed to take care of that because every point matters against her.”
Marin was gracious in defeat: “Tzu Ying could catch me on my backhand side, I knew about that; and I was ready for some of the shuttles, but not for others. She did that all the time today, she put more pressure on my backhand today than previously. And she played better than me at the end of the match. It was a really good three weeks for me. I’d have been happier if I had won, but two titles and a final is not bad!”
It was commendable that Marin, having undergone knee reconstruction following a ligament tear while playing the Indonesia Open final against India’s Saina Nehwal in the early weeks of 2019, had worked hard to build up the dazzling speed that had netted her three world Championship titles (in 2014, 2015 and 2018) and the 2016 Rio Olympics gold medal.
Tai’s fitness and ability to last the distance were never in doubt, and she played some absolutely breathtaking strokes to get out of trouble during testing rallies. She was faster on her feet and much more aggressive than she had been while being beaten in straight games by Marin in the two Thailand Open finals. She did not abandon her high-risk, high-returns style that make her the world’s most exciting shuttler, but she kept her concentration at a better level than she had in the two previous finals in Bangkok, and conceded fewer negative points than she had earlier.
There is reason to believe that these two wonderful players will continue to dominate the tournaments that precede the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to take place in July. Tai leads their head-to-head by a narrow 10-8 margin, which is the tightest figure among the Taiwanese player’s career statistics with the entire current crop of women’s singles players – Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi of Japan, Chen Yufei and He Bingjiao of China, An Se Young of Korea and P V Sindhu of India, to name just half a dozen of the top female shuttlers in the world today.
There were four entities among the five events, at the start of Sunday’s World Tour finals, who were in with a chance of completing a hat-trick of titles. But only two of them managed to bag their third consecutive title in as many weeks – the men’s doubles pair of Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin of Chinese Taipei, and the mixed doubles combination of Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai of Thailand.
Whereas Marin was baulked at the tape by Tai in the women’s singles final, the 2017 world champion Viktor Axelsen was unexpectedly tamed at 21-16, 5-21, 21-17 in an hour-long encounter by compatriot Anders Antonsen, runner-up to Japan’s Kento Momota at the 2019 World Championships.
The defeat snapped Axelsen’s 29-match winning streak, stretching back to the All England Open in March, and prevented him from winning his fourth straight Super 1000 title. The two finalists had met on five previous occasions, and Axelsen was leading their head-to-head 3-2. However, Antonsen had been laid low by COVID-19 in the first week of December, and was far from at his physical best – which explains his transparent strategy of blatantly letting the second game go, in order to conserve his energies for the decider.
As one of the TV commentators quipped before the start of the match, “Axelsen can only be defeated today by Axelsen himself!” So dominant had the rangy 6’ 4” Dane been, in the two Thailand Open tournaments, and in the lead-up to the title match of the World Tour Finals, that he had dropped a solitary game in 14 previous matches in Bangkok – to the speedy Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, in the semi-final of the first Thailand Open. It was hard to believe that Axelsen had had surgery on his troublesome ankle as recently as September last year.
However, the 23 year old Antonsen, who practises regularly with his slightly taller and older rival during the national camps, was familiar with his rival’s speedy style, and played a tactically shrewd game. As Arthur Ashe had famously done to Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final, Antonsen simply denied his senior countryman the pace that Axelsen relishes.
There were half-smashes down the flanks, along with accurate body smashes; and the net remained firmly under the younger man’s control. He also wisely conserved his energies in the decider, taking frequent rests for towelling down, using the Hawk-eye challenges judiciously to get his breath back, and keeping the rallies short.
“I’m shocked and I’m so, so happy, of course,” an exhausted Antonsen said, after the match. “It’s overwhelming, I didn’t expect to go all the way. It’s amazing to get a title as big as this one. It’s hard to process, and I don’t even know what to say. I’ve had a tough month, things have not been working well for me and I’ve been struggling a lot, so to win here is unreal.”
The older man admitted to being a bundle of nerves in the closing reaches of the encounter. “I’m disappointed,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m as satisfied with my game as I have been the other days. There were way too many mistakes and bad decisions. I think mentally I’ve used up a lot of energy. Anders played really well and I want to congratulate him. It wasn’t for me today, but I can still look back at a great three weeks.”
The players now go on a month-long rest and recuperation period, occasioned mainly by the cancellation or postponement of several World Tour tournaments that were originally set for February. The break will also provide time for the countries in Europe, that will be hosting the next leg of the circuit, to get their act together on the Covid-control front.
The first tournament in Europe will be the Swiss Open, a Super 300 event, to be played in Basel from 2 to 7 March. Following closely behind will be another Super 300 competition, the German Open (9 to 14 March) at Muelheim an der Ruhr, and the next Super 1000 championships after the two recently concluded Thailand Opens – the All England Open (17 to 21 March) at Birmingham. A fourth World Tour event takes place in Malaysia in the closing days of the month.
It is expected that the Japanese and Chinese contingents – which stayed away from Bangkok for different reasons, though both related to COVID-19 – will return to the international circuit from the Basel tournament. The tournaments in March will provide the likes of Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal some late opportunities to collect points towards their fading qualification bids for the Tokyo Olympics.
Even though P V Sindhu and B Sai Praneeth have already qualified for the Olympics, they would be keen to test their combat-readiness for the stern battles in Tokyo by pitting their wits against the best in the world.
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