Malaysia Superseries Premier: Ajay Jayaram’s victory over Viktor Axelsen should not come as a surprise

World No 4 shuttler Viktor Axelsen has frankly admitted that he hates playing against Ajay Jayaram, basically because the Indian plays a different game from most players on the international circuit. The 29-year-old Jayaram uses his wrist in much the same manner as the legendary Prakash Padukone did in his prime, employing late deception to make it hard for a rival to read the next stroke.

Ajay Jayaram. Image Credit: Twitter @ajay_289

Ajay Jayaram. Image Credit: Twitter @ajay_289

On Thursday, the Chennai-born, Bangalore-based Indian came roaring back from the potentially debilitating loss of the opening game, to stun the giant 6’4” Dane by a 9-21, 21-14, 21-19 scoreline in 44 minutes of non-stop, high-quality action, to barge into the quarter-finals of the $600,000 Malaysian Open Super Series Premier tournament in Sarawak.

For the record, it must be stressed that Jayaram’s triumph over Axelsen should have occasioned no surprise for badminton aficionados, for he went into the match locked at 2-2 in career meetings with the 23-year-old Dane, who had won the India Open just four days earlier, and had also been champion at the 2016 year-ending Dubai Super Series Grand finals.

In the course of his march to the India Open title, Axelsen had defeated Jayaram in straight games at 23-21, 21-17, but the victory had been far from easy and had come after the Indian had erred at the net more often than he could afford. For, the net is Jayaram’s preferred territory; he likes to control the pace and trend of the match by dominating the net.

Following Kidambi Srikanth’s steep fall in the rankings, in the wake of an ankle injury suffered during the Japan Open in October last year, the 19th ranked Jayaram is currently the highest rated Indian on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder. That is the highest rank that Jayaram has ever occupied, one rung better than the 20th position he had touched way back in January 2014.

The reason why his game induces so much of a throwback to Padukone’s unique style is because, during his teenage years, he forsook his base in Mumbai and trained for seven years at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bangalore. Under the maestro’s sharp eyes and chief coach Vimal Kumar’s guidance, the lad developed the unique “reach early, play late” doctrine – the ability of reaching the shuttle early, but delaying execution of the stroke, to catch the opponent napping.

It was only when the academy decided in 2010 on being exclusively a centre to bring up junior talent, and graduated all those who had outgrown their teens, that Jayaram, then 22, moved on to train with professional badminton coach Tom John. But the basics inculcated in him at PPBA during his formative years in the sport have remained ingrained in his style that is so different from most players on the international circuit.

At the Stadium Perpaduan on Thursday, after a disastrous opening game in which he played with the drift in the stadium and failed to control the shuttle, Jayaram hustled and bustled, and yet managed to strike the shuttle late, often caressing it over the net or cocking his wrist at the last second to flick it over the long-striding, net-rushing Dane. Time and again, Axelsen found himself spread-eagled on the court in a desperate attempt to change direction and get a sharp half-smash back.

Jayaram even employed the lofted serve to the baseline, a rally-launching stroke that has almost disappeared from the men’s game. Axelsen put everything he had into his smashes against the high serve, but his antagonist put up a stout defence, and regained control of the rally.

From a position of equality at 12-all in the second game, Jayaram piled on the pressure, remaining in control of most of the rallies to force Axelsen to go for improbable sharp shots, most of which he buried in the net. Taking the second game comfortably at 21-14, Jayaram built up a handy 11-7 lead by the lemon break stage of the decider, handling the stadium drift better than he had in the first stanza.

But the giant Dane fought for all he was worth, and caught up with the Indian at 12-all. Thereafter, not more than a solitary point separated the two adversaries until 16-all, when Jayaram nosed ahead to 18-16. Amazingly, Jayaram used the lofted serve at 19-18, and went to match-point when Axelsen misjudged the bird which fell an inch inside the baseline.

Axelsen reduced the margin to 19-20, using his height to produce a wristy jab that caught Jayaram napping on the backhand. But when, on the final point, Jayaram held back his return of serve slightly to get the Dane into an ungainly tangle and dump him on the mat, he had secured a brilliant victory that earned him a quarter-final meeting with Korea’s fifth-seeded Son Wan Ho, who had a routine 21-15, 21-15 outing against Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto.

The 28-year-old Korean goes into the last-eight clash with a 3-0 career head-to-head advantage over his Indian opponent. This statistic comes with a rider – that the two last met three-and-a-half years back, in the China Open in November 2013, when Son notched up a 21-18, 21-19 triumph. Jayaram is playing far better today than he was in the closing months of 2013, and will not be an easy nut to crack.

The winner of this tie will earn a semi-final meeting with the winner of the Lin Dan-Jonatan Christie quarter-final. The Chinese great recovered from his somewhat indifferent performance against India’s B. Sai Praneeth in the opening round, to pummel Thailand’s Tanongsak Saensomboonsak into submission by a facile 21-8, 21-13 scoreline, while Indonesian Christie was a narrow 21-23, 21-17, 21-19 victor over Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen.

All these players are in the bottom half of the draw, with Christie enjoying a clear run to the quarter-final from the spot vacated by Denmark’s No 2 seed, Jan O Jorgensen, who pulled out of the competition at the last minute, through indisposition. This hole in the draw makes Dan a raging hot favourite to make the final, where he is heavily favoured to meet top-seeded Lee Chong Wei of the host nation.

Chong Wei, who had put out Englishman Rajiv Ouseph in his lung-opener, was a runaway 21-8, 21-6 victor over Hong Kong China’s Hu Yun; and next runs into Korean qualifier Jeon Hyeok Jin, who scored a facile 21-13, 21-10 win over Frenchman Brice Leverdez.

The 34-year-old Malaysian is unlikely to be thwarted from his quest for an unprecedented 12th Malaysian Open crown, though he will need to be at his best in the semi-final against reigning World Champion Chen Long or Hong Kong’s Wong Wing Ki Vincent. The third-seeded Chinese star overcame a slow start to beat fellow-countryman Huang Yuxiang at 16-21, 21-18, 21-10, while Vincent administered the knock-out punch to compatriot Angus Ng Ka Long at 21-10, 15-21, 21-17.

The Friday quarter-final that is most looked forward to in the women’s singles is the one that features the top seed and World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei against China’s Chen Yufei, conqueror of India’s PV Sindhu in her opening encounter.

Yufei was not extended while drubbing Malaysia’s Goh Jin Wei at 21-14, 21-12, while Tai was far more severe on fellow-Taiwanese Pai Yu Po, winning 21-6, 21-8 in a mere 18 minutes of one-sided action. It remains to be seen whether Yufei can make any impression on the Taiwanese star who is currently in the form of her life.

In the other three quarter-finals, No 2 seed Carolina Marin will face Thailand’s seventh-seeded Ratchanok Intanon, No.3 seed Sung Ji Hyun of Korea will take on China’s fifth-ranked Sun Yu, and No 4 seed, Akane Yamaguchi will take on fellow-Japanese and the 2016 All England champion, Nozomi Okuhara.

Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 11:21 AM

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