New Delhi: Long before Kidmbi Srikanth and Viktor Axelsen walked into the arena on Sunday, it was nobody's guess about who was the favourite going into the India Open final. That, by no means, is a comment on Srikanth's game or abilities, but it surely is a recognition of Axelsen's supreme form and the aura of invincibility that he seemed to have effortlessly enhanced over the past week. However, even by such standards, Srikanth's capitulation in the opening game came as a shock, and any amount of grit was always going to be too little, too late.
Scorelines have a way of deceiving people. Numbers do not always paint the complete picture, neither do statistics ever tell the entire tale. 21-7, 22-20 on Sunday, however, was as lucid as it was eloquent.
World No 4 Axelsen arrived into the contest with a slender 4-3 head-to-head advantage over the No 7-ranked Indian, and all his four wins had come in duo's last five matches. That apart, there was a glaring chasm in their current form; while Axelsen had eased past his opponents in a stunning stretch of authority, Srikanth had gritted and grounded his way to the summit clash.
Then, there was a small matter of stamina. The Dane had wrapped-up all his matches leading into the final in two games, while three of Srikanth's four matches prior to the final were three-game affairs. Axelsen had a game time of 151 minutes over the past five days; Srikanth came into the final on the back of 224 minutes of badminton. It's worth noting that two of Srikanth's last four games before the final had gone over an hour-mark, and one lasted 57 minutes. Not surprisingly, Srikanth was visibly slow to start, while Axelsen blazed away in a typically bellicose manner.
At 1-1, Axelsen hit his first smash. It was an effortless burst of power that sent the shuttle sizzling to the Indian's right toe. Then, trailing 2-3, he again nailed a booming smash to draw level. Two scoring shots, two smashes. They bared Axelsen's intent and also went on to dictate the course of the match. The big Dane kept Srikanth on the tenterhooks with some deep returns before going back to his Plan A – attack.
Operating mostly from the mid-court, Axelsen proved almost impossible to dislodge. The Indian was unable to either push him back or engage him at the net for too long. Axelsen led 11-7 at the mid-game interval, showing a ruthless will to dominate.
Post break, Axelsen switched on the proverbial beast mode. In an exhibition of relentless aggression and a barely-believable grip over his opponent, he grabbed each of the next ten points on offer and pocketed the opening game 21-7 in 12 minutes flat. It was stunning!
The Indian started the second stanza with three errors of on the trot – two of them unforced – one each on the net and baseline. The 26-year-old kept searching for answers even as mistakes mounted. Wide returns, long tosses and errors of judgment combined to give the Dane an 11-9 lead going into the interval.
Upon resumption, Srikanth clawed his way back to 11-12, showing better judgment and better control of rallies. Next, they played a close rally that saw Srikanth bring out some outstanding defence till double errors from Axelsen put Srikanth on a 13-12 advantage.
Axelsen made it 13-all, and then 14-all to stay in the hunt, but a wide smash handed back the lead. A wide return from Axelsen brought back parity before the Dane nosed ahead with another smash. Another fast rally followed. By now, Srikanth had found his rhythm, and realising he had little to lose, went on an all-out attack.
He forced Axelsen to hit wide to make it 16-all, and moved to 17-16 when Axelsen's smash hit the net. At 17-17, Srikanth broke away with a crosscourt smash, and when Axelsen hit long, Srikanth led 19-17.
Axelsen pulled one back, but a jump smash by Srikanth brought him to game point. 20-18. Then Axelsen played, what Srikanth would later call a few "brave" points to draw level. His 19th point came after a close net play when Srikanth's return hit the net, and the crucial 20th was won on the net cord. Viktor would later count himself lucky, but there were few in the stadium who would grudge his luck.
The Dane won another point on the net before, inevitably, firing a smash that had Srikanth on all-fours. He missed, and Axelsen promptly took off his shirt and roared. The man who had, less than a week ago, claimed that he was not looking to peak yet, had beaten the local hero in a sublime display of attacking badminton.
"At 20-18, I didn't do anything different, and maybe that's the reason I lost. I should have tried something.
"I gave him too many chances to attack in the first set, and I tried avoiding that in the second. I did fairly well until the 20th point in the second game. Maybe if it would have been a decider, I think I would have had much better chances," Srikanth said after the loss.
On the court though, at the stroke of game's 36th minute, Srikanth sat motionless on his knees as Axelsen ran to his corner before acknowledging the cheers from a packed house. Slowly, he rose, and with him, the applause grew. The two men hugged and walked back in the dark tunnel; one of them glowing with the incandescence of victory.
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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2019 21:32:15 IST