It was a rare moment on Sunday afternoon when reigning world champion and World No 1 Viktor Axelsen was left frustrated. The high-flying Dane couldn't manage to match up with fit-again Chen Long's fast-paced gameplay in the much-anticipated final of the China Open Superseries Premier tournament. It was more than surprising to see Axelsen struggle after looking at how he exceeded expectations this year in his fight to become the top dog in a space of a few months.
Inside a packed arena in Fuzhou, Axelsen trailed 2-8 in the opening game and was forced to stretch his arms in anger as Chen's sublime netplay was almost impossible to retrieve. There were glimpses of Chen's once-dominating style of play on the day, which had faded away towards the end of 2015 and mid-2016 season. But, the opening game went on in the same routine thereafter. Axelsen couldn't breach the impenetrable defence of Chen.
After what was a sluggish three-game win over World No 3 Son Wan Ho, Chen floored the lanky Danish lad with such ease, covering every inch of the court. Little did Axelsen know that the China Open is Chen's favourite competition. It was the Chinese ace's fifth final (2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017) in seven years, winning three and finishing runners-up on two occasions. But, this was Chen's chance to put an end to the rough patch following a 25-month Superseries title drought.
Amidst his barren run that was marred mostly by injuries, Chen competed at a few Grand Prix Gold and Superseries events to regain his lost form. Despite the not-so-good form, the World no 5 bagged an Olympic gold in Rio last year and a bronze medal at the recently-concluded World Badminton Championships in Glasgow. A series of injuries, including a persistent wrist knock, forced the Chinese shuttler to skip a handful of tournaments.
The 2015 Denmark Open was the last time the world witnessed the charm of Chen's strongest weapon in his armoury – the defence. He floated around the court as gracefully as his compatriot Lin Dan did for nearly a decade, which eventually earned him the tag of 'Little Dan'. One just couldn't predict the unplayable swift backhand smashes from the mid-court. Not only that, his ability to play close to the net is something the opponents need to worry about. The 2016 Rio Olympics was one such platform where the 28-year-old world champion dazzled and made fans believe that he can finally break the Lee Chong Wei-Lin Dan domination.
That's why, it is often discussed that if Lee and Lin were the Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal of badminton, Chen emerges as Novak Djokovic here, who has repeatedly put up a fight to break the domination. And it's not a Djoke! The most striking comparison about the two successful racquet sports athletes is their mental prowess.
The Serbian ace has turned the game on its head from weak positions in the last few years, while in a generation of impatient shuttlers, Chen's precision and calmness during long-lasting rallies have enthralled many since his first China Open title in 2010. However, after missing out on a few important tournaments in these couple of years, it is understood how injuries and the precautionary measures taken in the meantime were a stumbling block to his route to reach the same level as Lin and Lee.
Cut to the second game, Axelsen – who is known for using his aggression in the right way – got his mojo back after a lengthy chat with his coach at the mid-game break to force the match into the decider. Suddenly, the Dane was fired up following a bleak opening game. It felt like Chen would succumb yet again. The strokes had lost its power towards the end. There was a possibility that fatigue would come back to haunt him like it did throughout the 2017 calendar year. The fans inside the arena were in for a ride. On one side, a hungry but inconsistent Chen waited impatiently to clinch another title on his home soil, while top seed Axelsen was ready to make amends for making a barrage of errors at the net in the first stanza.
Despite regaining some much-needed confidence, frustration never left Axelsen. Notably, Chen relied on his natural defensive play, coupled with inch-perfect net shots to contain the Dane. Chen asked questions which Axelsen had no answers to. Hence the frustration. Axelsen let Chen open up a six-point lead at 1-7 in the decider and this is where Chen's on-court strategy turned the game around. The crosscourt slices at the net were enough to keep Axelsen away from delivering booming smashes, something the Dane loves to do against defensive opponents. Chen's patient approach may have reminded fans of the Olympic final against Lee, who was beaten to the pulp in straight games. Just like that, Chen played with a plan in mind. In fact, a master plan to clinch the third and final game and claim his fourth China Open crown.
After more than two years, Chen has finally managed to get back to where he belongs. And Chen's win has taught that a shuttler need not compete in every major event to acclaim maximum points and make way to the top rung. For example, in China, athletes aren't encouraged to rush and compete until and unless it is necessary for them to partake in an upcoming major event. Even the likes of Lin, Shi Yuqi and Tian Houwei have skipped a number of tournaments to restore balance.
Perhaps, that is how the system runs in a country which has enjoyed most success in the sport. Malaysia is a different breed due to Lee's desire to play back-to-back tournaments, where he hardly disappointed. Lastly, Chen's decision in picking tournaments wisely sets an example for fellow shuttlers to recover fully and not think too much about the points. What matters at the end of the day is converting a good recovery period into silverware.
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Updated Date: Nov 20, 2017 18:03:40 IST