The end of the year heralded a new beginning for Viktor Axelsen.
The Dane, seen as the face of the next generation of Men’s Singles badminton, finally nailed a World Superseries title in his seventh final.
While it wasn’t really a surprise to see the Dane stand atop the podium at the Dubai World Superseries Finals for his ability was never in doubt, what caused heads to turn was that Axelsen demonstrated the kind of resolve he wasn’t normally associated with. In his final against China’s Tian Houwei, Axelsen refused to do down the route that he had in six previous Superseries finals, overcoming frustrating phases with positive play instead of seeking desperate measures. These learnings were evident even during his first-ever victory over Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei in the group match – in fact, it was that encounter that showed that Axelsen (featured image) had turned a corner.
The title, coming four months after the Dane won bronze at the Rio Olympics, and following Denmark’s Thomas Cup victory in which he played a leading role, stated emphatically that the Dane has entered the big league.
What a year it was for Denmark! There was little promise of that earlier in the year, although Axelsen had made the final of the Yonex Sunrise India Open, which he lost to Japan’s Kento Momota. The breakthrough came with the TOTAL BWF Thomas Cup in Kunshan (China); the Danes, despite missing doubles star Carsten Mogensen and with a few players nursing injury niggles, fought off Malaysia in the semi-finals and Indonesia in the final to pull off a thrilling victory. One reason for the victory was that singles players like Axelsen, Jorgensen, Hans-Kristian Vittinghus and Emil Holst stepped up to the occasion and delivered under pressure.
The momentum swung Denmark’s way even in the individual events that followed. Vittinghus captured the Xiamenair Australian Open in only his second Superseries final; Jorgensen, runner-up to Lee Chong Wei in Indonesia and Japan, triumphed at the Thaihot China Open, the first European singles player to do so.
Despite the Danes’ rich pickings, it was Lee Chong Wei who outshone all his contemporaries in Men’s Singles. The Malaysian was named BWF Player of the Year for an impressive season that included victories at the Celcom Axiata Malaysia Open, the BCA Indonesia Open and the Yonex Open Japan, besides his third Olympic silver in Rio and the Asian Championships title.
His semi-final victory over China’s Lin Dan in Rio will be long remembered – Lee, for long second-best to Lin at major events, finally got the better of his former nemesis in a nerve-jangling finish. The Malaysian however could not produce the same level against Chen Long in the final, going down rather tamely to the Chinese in the title clash. Two-time World champion Chen added the Olympic gold to his resume. In fact, Chen was so focussed on the Olympic title that he had modest returns at the other events – he was runner-up to Lee at the Malaysia Open and the Asian Championships, and to Jorgensen at the China Open.
His compatriot Lin had a rather modest season but for title wins at the Yonex All England and the Bonny China Masters, and his semi-final performance at the Olympics, following which he did not compete in the remainder of the season.
It was the turn of China’s youngsters to make a mark. Qiao Bin was all power and hustle in outplaying Korea’s Son Wan Ho for the Victor Korea Open crown; Shi Yuqi outgunned a player 16 years older in the Yonex French Open final – Korea’s Lee Hyun Il. Tian Houwei made two Superseries finals – in Birmingham and Dubai – but failed to win either.
Another consistent player who failed to win a Superseries was Son Wan Ho. The Korean was in three Superseries finals – in Singapore, Korea and Denmark – but couldn’t capitalise against less-favoured opponents in all three. Instead, it was Indonesia’s Sony Dwi Kuncoro, Qiao Bin and Thailand’s Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk who grabbed their chances.
At the fag end of the year a Hong Kong player achieved a long dreamt-of moment. As a child, Ng Ka Long had watched his heroes battle it out at the Yonex-Sunrise Hong Kong Open. It was finally his own turn and the Hongkonger made no mistake in powering past surprise finalist Sameer Verma (India) for his first Superseries crown.
Two players, both marked for high accomplishments, had a disappointing year by their standards. India’s Kidambi Srikanth and Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen couldn’t fulfil expectations, and will be keen to come out guns blazing when the 2017 season begins.