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Kidambi Srikanth, Viktor Axelsen's flourish shows competition in men's singles badminton is wide open

In a sport where predictions are irrelevant, Malaysian great Lee Chong Wei and Lin 'Super' Dan of China stood out in the past decade, bagging one major title after another. However, the year 2017 has been different, with the lethal Lee-Lin domination being absent in the men's singles circuit, which has opened the gates for promising shuttlers to write their names in the history books. While Lee won a Superseries title back in January at the All England Championships, it has been a total of 179 days for Lin without a Superseries title since winning the Malaysia Open in April.

Lee and Lin, both of whom are nearing retirement, claimed four Superseries titles combined last year, in comparison to just two this season so far. Instead, the 2017 Badminton World Federation (BWF) calendar year saw the likes of Viktor Axelsen, Kidambi Srikanth and a few up-and-coming shuttlers, like Anthony Sinisuka Ginting of Indonesia making their presence felt among the top dogs.

"At the moment, in the men’s singles, you still have Lin Dan and Chen Long, players who have won big titles. Yes, you have some younger players coming forward and starting to make their impact like Srikanth. A player like (Kento) Momota will also come. It's a very exciting period for men’s singles and hopefully, we will see some great matches and fights. And maybe towards the next Olympics, you will see a (bigger) group of men’ singles stars (competing for title),” said the legendary Peter Gade, who along with Lee, Lin, Taufik Hidayat and Lee Young Dae, was in Mumbai to promote the Legends' Vision programme.

 Kidambi Srikanth, Viktor Axelsens flourish shows competition in mens singles badminton is wide open

Kidambi Srikanth and Viktor Axelsen in action. AP

Axelsen's wrist wizardry and range of shots paved the way for him to clinch the India Open, World Championships and Japan Open, while comeback-man Srikanth relied on his pure attacking prowess to take home Indonesia, Australia, Denmark and French Open titles. The variety of players on the circuit has brought about a change and with other countries breathing down the necks of China, Indonesia and Malaysia, the court appears to be more open now.

"Taufik and I are not playing anymore. What we are seeing now is a more open field. In the men’s singles, it's a transition because (of a few) players being at the top and younger players coming forward. So you are going to see a few forming before the Olympics and it is exciting to follow that development," added Gade.

The World Championships in Glasgow marked the revival of the Danish domination as Axelsen exceeded expectations to become only the second player apart from Chen and Lin to become a world champion since 2006. The 23-year-old has been relentlessly delivering booming smashes with ease and his aggressive on-court attitude has proved a handful for many, including greats Lee and Lin.

"Viktor (Axelsen) is a very ambitious young man, always willing to put his 110 percent. His style is to attack in a very powerful way. He is a big man and has got a lot of range," explained Gade.

The Odense-born shuttler is a part of a rare breed of players who aim to go for the kill and finish a game in a jiffy. Axelsen's social media activity is also worth mentioning as he appears to have a liking for interacting with fans and post videos from his training centre, where he sharpens his on-court skills with the coaches. The Dane's focus on fitness and mastering his reach towards the sides of the court, something Axelsen has been guilty of not doing, are understandable looking at the dog-eat-dog competition out there on the international circuit. It is also admirable the way the lanky shuttler covers the court.

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"His style of play is to attack in a powerful way, he is a big boy (laughs) so he has got a lot of range. And the challenge for him is to still move fast and cover the court in the best way possible. The challenge for him is to still move fast and cover a lot of ground. His challenge in coming years is to be stable and be able to perform in every single tournament at the highest level. I still think he needs to take care of his body and preparation in the right way. Still, he needs to develop parts of his game to be on top of men's singles, and I think you will see him do well. But there will be competitors," Gade said.

Meanwhile, Srikanth has been on an upward trajectory since April. Despite missing out on winning the Singapore Open, where he lost to compatriot B Sai Praneeth in the final, the 24-year-old shuttler went on to claim two Superseries Premier and two Superseries titles in as many months. The Guntur-born shuttler has matured tournament after tournament. In fact, Srikanth channelised his inner Peter Gade to thwart opponents with his unique offensive approach from the back court. Like Axelsen, fitness is paramount for Srikanth, a player who was once sceptical about the sport. "There is a balance of physical and technical training as far as Srikanth is concerned. Srikanth is an example of how to think like professional and also keep oneself fit," India's singles coach, Mulyo Handoyo, told Firstpost.

Srikanth's attack is nothing but a treat to watch, but his defensive game is something he needs to work on; so there are chinks in his armour. For example, the 24-year-old faltered against Son Wan Ho in straight games at the Worlds. A balanced game will allow Srikanth to retrieve regularly and have complete control over tiring rallies. The attack-minded shuttler's key to success this season also comes down to patience, a pivotal element in any offensive player's arsenal. His rampant form this year has forced a few experts to talk about a possible rivalry with Axelsen, who has the utmost respect for the Indian ace. "Currently, it (rivalry) has to be between Srikanth and Viktor (Axelsen), who have achieved so much and will achieve more, but there are still many players to be able to compete," said Mulyo.

Surprisingly, there have been murmurs about a likely comeback of Japan's Kento Momota – who was suspended by the Nippon Badminton Association (NBA) for gambling in illegal casinos last year in April – on the international circuit. Currently ranked 75 in the latest BWF rankings, Momota won the Dutch Open Grand Prix Gold – which was his fourth title since returning – in October, to move from 110 to the top 80 and many still believe that once he fixes the broken pieces, nothing can stop him from breaking into the top rung. Recently, even Lee spoke highly of the Japanese shuttler, stating how Momota and Axelsen will rule the men's singles court like his old foe, Lin, and he did for years. With an eye for quick net shots, Momota is one of the few players known for their overall game. His Tai Tzu Ying-like deception and Lin Dan-like on-court movements make him a genuine threat not only to Srikanth and Axelsen, but also some of the promising talents.

With Chen and Chou Tein Chen still figuring out to find their feet, and Ginting, Anders Antonsen along with Indian shuttlers like Prannoy, Praneeth and Sameer Verma waiting on the wings, the field surely looks wide open for players to vie for major silverware.

"Say two to three years ago, there were Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan and Chen Long, who regularly featured in the semis and finals and probably winning titles. It was pretty difficult for other shuttlers to challenge for the crown but I would say things are more open now. There are a few players who stand a chance of winning major titles," Prannoy concluded.

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Updated Date: Nov 07, 2017 18:32:37 IST