When Viktor Axelsen became the first Danish men's singles player in 20 years to lift the coveted World Championships title, it was apparent how all hopes were pinned on him to revive the Danish legacy after a barren run. Since the turn of the century, only Jan O Jorgensen had been able to garner accolades for the tiny Scandinavian country.
Meanwhile, the Chinese – Lin Dan and Chen Long – and Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei were busy collecting the medals.
In what can be described as a tough phase for the Danes in men's singles, Axelsen’s meteoric rise is like a breath of fresh air. With the elusive gold in Glasgow, Axelsen added his name to the other great Danish champions like Flemming Delfs and Peter Rasmussen.
He is Danish, a world champion and into the final of a Superseries tournament. Well, this feels like the 90s all over again.
While many crumble under pressure situations in close matches, Axelsen acts like a cool customer and handles the task with maturity, as if he is the master of the court.
At the ongoing Japan Open Superseries in Tokyo, the World No 2 has ruffled a few feathers quite convincingly en route to the final. There were glimpses of Peter Gade's sheer tenacity on the court in the way Axelsen executed most of his shots against India's high-flying Kidambi Srikanth, a player for whom he has utmost respect. That same sturdiness was visible in his defensive side that Gade once showed in his heydays.
Not only that, in the semi-finals on Saturday, his king-like demeanour on the court against World No 1 Son Wan Ho was just worth watching. A lot has been said about the Korean's ability to snatch the game under the noses of his opponents, but against Axelsen, he was beaten to the dust in straight games.
The Dane was in total command of the proceedings against Son, the same way he has been against every opponent that he has faced in the tournament so far. Ahead of the semi-final match against Son, everyone believed it to be a three-game thriller. Son's ultra defensive style of play is like a mouse-trap. The net shots will tempt his opponents, but they won't realise how quickly the Korean takes advantage of their on-court position to find an angle for a deep backhand shot or a deceptive shot.
Despite Son's useful strategy, Axelsen made full of his height and reach to ploy sharp crosscourt net shots and smashes which helped him enter his second final in Tokyo. In 2015, Axelsen entered the final only to suffer defeat at the hands of Lin.
However, the world champion's biggest test awaits against six-time Japan Open winner Lee, who has won the event in 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016, in the final on Sunday. It will be more than a final inside the packed Tokyo Metropolitan Stadium as the fifth-seeded Malaysian shuttler is set to make his 100th appearance in a final of an international tournament.
Axelsen has played 10 times against Lee and has won only once with the Dane coming out victorious in the quarter-finals of the 2016 year-end Dubai Super Series Finals. Apart from that, it has always been Lee who stamped his authority in the majority of the matches involving the two.
However, the super Sunday showpiece will have surprises and more so from the in-form Dane, who for the first time, appears as the firm favourite against Lee. Having maintained a 100 percent record in the competition with back-to-back straight-game wins en route to final, the 2017 India Superseries champion has become the man to beat.
What makes Axelsen a difficult opponent to take on is the range of shots he has in his armoury. The 21-17, 21-17 win over Srikanth showed how well he can mix his shots from the forecourt, while the 21-16, 21-16 score against Son indicated that Axelsen's admirable attacking prowess can turn the game around in no time.
“I knew it would be tough. Son Wan Ho is world No 1 for good reason but I am really happy with my attacking game. There were a few mistakes but I handled the situation well,” 23-year-old Axelsen was quoted by saying the official BWF website.
“I respect Lee Chong Wei a lot. He has won so many tournaments and I have only beaten him once. Tomorrow will be really tough but I am looking forward to it,” he added.
History will favour the experienced Malaysian over the giant-killer Dane in the final of yet another mega event. There is no hiding that with age, it is getting tougher for the 34-year-old ace, but after crumbling to second place finishes at numerous events, Lee isn't going to let Axelsen run away with the gold medal.
“Today was better. I am enjoying this Japan Open and I hope I can win the title for the seventh time. In the first game, I could not get into my rhythm and he had a big lead but, like in my other matches, I focused on point by point and kept fighting,” said Lee, adding that he is proud to show he can still reach the semi-finals and finals of events despite debates about his age and form.
As he nears the end of his career, Lee has been cherry-picking his tournament appearances in order to extend his time at the top. Against the lanky Axelsen, the diminutive Lee will have his task cut out.
Interestingly, since the time Axelsen became the first shuttler from Europe to win the junior global title in 2010, there has never been a halt in his career and with the kind of form he is in, it looks like it will more than an effort to stop him.
A win over one of the greats and former World No 1 in a final of a Superseries tournament could earn him the number one spot in next week's BWF Rankings. Axelsen has the perfect chance to prove that he isn't the 'next big thing' but the man to beat in the men's singles department.
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Updated Date: Sep 24, 2017 09:21:36 IST