Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara were the last ones standing as the singles contests at the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2017 concluded today in Glasgow.
The contrast between the two finals was stark – the Women’s Singles final produced one of the all-time great contests; the Men’s Singles final didn’t quite have the same drama, but both results set milestones in their own ways.
In beating five-time champion Lin Dan (China) 22-20 21-16, Axelsen became the first European since countryman Peter Rasmussen 20 years ago to become Men’s Singles champion. Incidentally, Rasmussen’s triumph had come in Glasgow.
Okuhara’s achievement was rarer, for she became Japan’s first-ever Women’s Singles World champion by beating India’s Pusarla V Sindhu 21-19 20-22 22-20.
In decades to come, the Women’s Singles final will be talked of in mythic terms as the gold standard – the prime example of all that badminton stands for. At the end of 110 minutes – the second longest Women’s Singles match ever – every sinew of the two gladiators had been stretched; every drop of sweat shed. Thankfully, there was no blood.
It was a miracle that Nozomi Okuhara and Pusarla V Sindhu could stand upright on the podium at the end of it all, for the match had been an ultramarathon in which all the abilities had been tested. By the third game, each punishing the other by sending the shuttle to the farthest corners, forcing twists, turns, lunges and dives, the two players often doubled over at the end of each rally, seemingly unable to continue. And yet they picked themselves up and continued in the same vein until the next point was won or lost.
“When I saw the time, it was over an hour, and I thought ‘Oh my god, where is it going?’” Okuhara was to say later. “I was in a different world. I told myself to enjoy the moment. I saw she was tired too, so I believed I had the advantage.”
Okuhara came prepared for the bigger weapons that Pusarla possessed. The Indian knew she had to avoid the rallies that Okuhara is feared for, but in seeking to keep the points short, Pusarla sacrificed rhythm. For much of the opening game, it was Okuhara who set the tempo. Seven straight points helped her take the game.
The second was close all the way; Okuhara saved three game points to level at 20 before her opponent won the game after a 73-shot rally that won a standing ovation.
That set the stage for a magnificent third game, in which both contestants challenged the limits of the other’s physical and mental endurance. Each point was won through tremendous athleticism, craft and patience. Pusarla could glimpse daylight at 19-17.
The Indian was a whisker away from the title, but Okuhara, refusing to play safe, and still pushing the pace, finally conjured an immaculate drop shot that stayed beyond the desperate lunge of the Indian.
It had been 110 minutes of the highest quality. The match fell a minute short of the longest Women’s Singles contest ever – Okuhara versus Wang Shixian (China) at the Malaysia Open in 2015.
“I’m very happy and very tired,” said Okuhara. “I could hear the fans supporting me and that inspired me.”
The loss to Pusarla in the Rio Olympics semi-finals had prepared her for the tall Indian’s attack.
“When I look back at the Olympics, I regret that I didn’t use the forecourt well enough against Sindhu. Today I was alert for her forecourt shots, and I was covering the front and back quite well… I’m happy that this result sends a good message for Japanese sport.”
Her opponent said she’d given it her all: “It was anybody’s game. It’s upsetting to lose, but you can’t say anything at the end of such a match. It was never over from both sides. The third game went to 20-all. Every point was tough and we were both not letting go. Obviously anybody would aim for a gold because this is the final of the World Championships, but that last moment changed everything.”
It’s Axelsen’s Day
The Men’s Singles final, in contrast, wasn’t as intense, but the first game was finely balanced. Lin again set his nagging length; Axelsen fought to free himself with his attack down the flanks. At 16-18, with the game slipping, Lin came up with three great points, whipping missiles that zeroed in on the lines. The Chinese sniffed a first game win at 20-19, but uncharacteristically, his famed discipline let him down. A couple of wayward shots later, his opponent was a game up.
It was mostly downhill from there. Errors from the five-time champion mounted, and even his tricky flicks failed to deceive Axelsen, who pounced on every small opening. By the middle of the second game, Lin’s defence was in shreds as the big Dane picked his spot. A smash that found the line gave him match point, and he was celebrating not long after.
Axelsen was at a loss for words and trying to come to terms with the reality of achieving a childhood dream.
“I haven’t even dared to think of winning a gold at the World Championships; it hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “I have this feeling… that all the hard work has been worth it.”
Having beaten two past champions – Chen Long and Lin Dan – on way to the title, Axelsen paid his tribute to them: “If you want to be the World champion, you have to do it the hard way. It’s an honour for me to beat them – they inspire me. Beating Lin Dan in the final is my biggest dream come true. As a child, I used to watch him play in Denmark.”
Lin regretted that his mistakes at the end of the first game had cost him dear: “Those mistakes proved fatal for me. I told my coach that if I got the first game, the result would have been different. After I lost it, all the pressure was on me.”
And to those who were curious about his physical condition, Lin was ready with his repartee: “I will be 34 this year. I cannot see any other player who has made the World Championships final at my age. I’m in good condition and I’m happy with my campaign.”