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Year in review 2017: Danish shuttler Viktor Axelsen emerges as world-beater with clear focus on fitness

Viktor Axelsen’s Instagram account is flooded with a host of videos and pictures of him sharpening his strokes and working on his on-court drills. That is also one place where he likes to interact with the fans regularly. For a 23-year-old World No 1, fitness is paramount and the fine results this season are nothing but a reflection of his incredible temperament.

In what was a slow start to the season, Axelsen could hardly make an impact at the European Mixed Team Championships and at the prestigious All England Open. Notably, things were similar during the start of the 2016 calendar year, as the Dane struggled at the German Grand Prix Gold and All England Open. However, by the time Axelsen approaches the third tournament of the season, the boxes start to get ticked one by one. Like he did at the 2016 India Superseries, where he finished as runners-up. Or the way he performed in the 2017 edition by grinding opponents into the dust with his incredible range and strokeplay. "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 former World No 1 Peter Gade.

Apart from defeating the ever-efficient Lin Dan in the bronze-medal match at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Axelsen could only manage to get his hands on his maiden Superseries title at the Dubai World Superseries Finals in December last year. Despite the below average season, Axelsen’s coaching staff stressed on the Dane's fitness. Axelsen was also taking tips from Malaysian coach Misbun Sidek, one of the most respected coaches in the circuit, for six months before the Olympic Games in Rio. He reaped the rewards of the focus on fitness and physical training as he won an Olympic bronze.

“It’s not only the hard work you put on the court but also what you do outside. So, with my physical training coach, we have been doing a lot of outside-the-court drills that are really important for me to be able to be injury-free. I’m a tall guy, so staying injury-free is the priority,” Axelsen told Firstpost in a telephonic interview.

Staying fit throughout the course of the season is one thing Axelsen yearns for. Playing back-to-back tournaments is a task in itself but the lanky Dane has shown that it could be handled easily, provided a shuttler keeps himself away from playing past his limits. That’s one of the reasons Axelsen could manage to play his A-game at the India, China, Japan and the Dubai tournaments. “With so many tournaments, you have to take care of your body and I think I have been doing my best. That is why I could compete at a high level,” said Axelsen.

However, Axelsen looked a bit off-colour from mid-April to July, when he failed to apply the same aggression and power to the matches at Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia. The competition at the European Championships also proved to be tough for the Danish shuttler. “It was hard for me. You can’t stay at the top of your game all the time. I wasn’t in a good condition both mentally and physically. But, here I am, in a much better place. So, sometimes you have to go down too before things can go all right,” he explained.

Focus on fitness bears fruit

 Year in review 2017: Danish shuttler Viktor Axelsen emerges as world-beater with clear focus on fitness

Recently-crowned world champion Viktor Axelsen flaunts his winner's medal after beating Lee Chong Wei in three games. AFP

After the rough road, Axelsen’s next challenge was the World Championships in Glasgow. Probably, it was the biggest challenge for him after the Olympics. After tormenting Chen Long in the semi-finals, Axelsen had to face the uphill task of emulating fellow Danes Flemming Delfs, who had won the inaugural 1977 title, and Peter Rasmussen, the winner of the 1997 edition. His opponent? The five-time world champion and the greatest shuttler to have graced the court ever – Lin Dan, who is also his idol.

Inside the jam-packed arena, Axelsen was under pressure in the opening game as Lin matched up to the Dane’s fast-paced game and was able to read the shots. It was 8-8 before the break, then 18-18, 19-19 and 20-20. However, Axelsen’s calm demeanour worked wonders as he managed to snatch two points and put one hand on the gold medal. In the second game, Axelsen systematically wore down the veteran, winning numerous energy-sapping rallies and using full advantage of his height to become the new world champion.

With that win, Axelsen also became the first European in 11 years to become the World No 1 after Gade (2006). "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... and cover a lot of ground,” Gade said. The win in Glasgow made it easier for Axelsen to play in the rest of the tournaments. Next up was the Japan Open, where his strokeplay improved and the court-coverage seemed razor-sharp. Just days after facing Lin in a major final, Axelsen had to overcome Lee Chong Wei in Japan. It took an hour and 15 minutes for him to edge past the Malaysian and win yet another title.

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And it’s safe to say that the performances are an ode to his fitness. The amount of hard work he had put in under his coach Kenneth Jonassen was bearing fruit. “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.

After falling short to Kidambi Srikanth in the quarter-final at the Denmark Open in October, Axelsen hit the ground running once again and claimed silver at the China Open. Although, he lost to Chen in the final, his confidence and approach remained the same ahead of the Superseries Finals. The World No 1 skipped the Hong Kong Open in order to focus on defending the title in Dubai. Such was the commitment and planning of his coaching staff!

Indeed the Danes were once a dominant force in world badminton, but since the past decade, the Chinese – Lin Dan and Chen Long in particular – and Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, have been overpowering forces. Now, former players and coaches see Axelsen as someone who can break their domination and revive the Danish legacy. Jan O Jorgensen tried to but was outclassed by the mighty 'Holy Trinity' of Lee, Lin and Chen.

Cut to Dubai. Axelsen's stock was rising rapidly. Yet again, he was the favourite to defend the title. The Dane was in the same group as Srikanth, Shi Yuqi and Chou Tien Chen but that didn't stop him from topping the group. Little did Shi know that Axelsen would produce one of his best performances (21-12, 21-8) to enter his second consecutive final. He found himself in a similar situation like the one in Glasgow: a major final and an opponent who has won the tournament multiple times. But Axelsen hardly put his foot wrong against Lee in the final to cap off the 2017 season on a high. The Malaysian ace was defeated in three games and the Dane heaved a sigh of relief.

“No way,” Axelsen laughed when asked whether the expected 2017 to be so successful. “It’s pretty tough to ask yourself to win so many titles. So, I took one tournament at a time and I managed to do well," he added.

Apart from the sudden rise of Indian shuttlers in the men's singles circuit, 2017 showed glimpses of a potential world-beater in Axelsen. “I would rate it as the best season of my career so far. To win three Superseries titles was really good for me, plus the World Championships. That is something I’ll look back as some of the special wins of my career," said Axelsen.

The men's singles department looks to have finally moved on from the Lee-Lin domination. Many shuttlers from the top-25 have made an impact this season, which was also one of the most open seasons the shuttlers have experienced in as many years. "The competition is wide open. There are a lot of players who can win a tournament. If you look back at the winners of the Superseries tournaments, you can see there have been different winners. Also, in the final, there have been players from outside top-10," explained the Dane.

At just 23, Axelsen has started to fulfil the promise. The booming smashes, sturdy defence, mixed with a fair share of aggression have indicated the beginning of the 6'4'' Axelsen's rise and how difficult it is to bring the gangling Dane to his knees. Opponents should be worried as once he starts winning, there's is no stopping him. One thing is certain that if Axelsen continues to flourish with complete focus on his training regime, 2018 is only going to bring more success.

"I’m happy to be the World No 1 but I’m not a guy who concentrates too much on the rankings. I would rather focus on the tournaments as it pretty much goes hand in hand," he concluded.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2018 13:11:04 IST

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