The cool, elegant and tall Dane was returning to the court for the third game in the second round of the men’s singles when the referee, countryman Ole Mertz, disqualified him for being late from the five-minute break.
Flemming Delfs, the joint top seed with Indonesia’s Liem Swie King at the maiden 1977 World Championships in Malmo, Sweden, was devastated.
The 26-year-old who drew a bye in the first round had lost the first game 10-15 to England’s Ray Stevens and won the second 15-10.
The late Mertz, a successful doubles player, a Denmark Thomas cupper and a former vice president of the International Badminton Federation (IBF), stood by his decision.
Stevens refused to accept a victory in that manner and convinced Mertz to let play continue. The players took to the court and Delfs, enthusiasm undiminished, won the third game 15-6.
The 5ft 10in tall right-hander with a powerful backhand won the subsequent matches and went on to win the title.
Delfs, born 7 September 1951, recalled the incident 42 years ago in an interview with BWF: “Mr Mertz was only doing his job as I was only allowed to be off court for five minutes.
“It was a big mistake that I could not find my way back in time.”
Delfs said he was thankful to Stevens for his intervention in the matter.
“Ray and I have always had a good relationship going back to our junior days. I am sure that is why he was fair to me, insisting that he did not want to win without playing the third game.
“Ever since then, I have been very thankful to Ray as winning the World Championships changed my life,” he said.
Rewind back to Malmo, 1977, and Delfs had to endure another three games in the third round before beating Japan’s Kinji Zeniya 7-15 17-15 15-12.
He then settled down packing off Sture Johnsson (Sweden) 15-6 15-10 in the quarterfinals, defeated Iie Sumirat (Indonesia) 15-1 18-17 in the semis and trounced his celebrated countryman Svend Pri 15-5 15-6 to clinch the title.
What did it feel like to beat Svend Pri?
“It was very strange yet special to play him in the final,” said Delfs, adding that he had trained with Svend every morning for two years.
He noted that it was only in the 1976/1977 season that he overcome Svend Pri whom he regarded as his toughest opponent along with Morten Frost in his playing days.
The badminton world then was abuzz with Delfs’ insane backhand technique, just as fans in the early 2000s were thrilled with the backhand smashes and dropshots of Indonesia’s 2005 World Championships singles victor, Taufik Hidayat.
On his backhand exploits, Delfs said: “My inspiration was Erland Kops from whom I learned a lot.
“We played in the same club and I had the opportunity to watch him play almost every day. I was impressed with his backhand and was motivated by him to develop the skill.”
He said his backhand technique gave him the upper hand against opponents mostly from the Far East.
Delfs dominated the 1976/1977 season by winning nearly all other notable tournaments, including the All England, which before the World Championships was the highest badminton competition.
Additionally, he won three consecutive European men’s singles titles from 1976 to 1980 and featured in four Thomas Cup quests between 1972 and 1982.
The downside to his badminton career was playing in the Far East where he was almost always a full level below his European standard due to the hot, humid conditions in the tropics.
Delfs explained: “I have never felt familiar with the humidity in the Far East. That is why I never performed well there, whereas when I played the same players in Europe, I often won.”
Denmark and Delfs fared miserably in the two Thomas Cup finals in Jakarta, losing to the hosts in 1973 (8-1) and 9-0 in 1979.
At the second World Championships in Jakarta in 1980, Delfs again crumbled in the tropics.
After easily getting past Hiroyuki Hasegawa (Japan) 15-10 15-3 in the first round, the defending champion tumbled to Mexican Roy Diaz Gonzalez 12-15 15-5 15-1 in the next round.
Rudy Hartono emerged singles champion beating Liem Swie King 15-7 15-7 as Indonesia took all but one title.
At his last appearance in the World Championships, Delfs partnered Steen Skovgaard to take a joint bronze medal with Malaysia’s Misbun Sidek/Jalani Sidek in the men’s doubles.
Since Delfs became the first singles champion at the worlds, two other Danes, Peter Rasmussen (1997) and Viktor Axelsen (2017), have snatched the crown.
Delfs retired early 1983 and has not been involved with badminton since. He is now a textile businessman in Copenhagen, dealing with products from the Far East and Portugal.
The badminton world will certainly greet Delfs with eagerness when he attends the 25th Edition celebration of the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2019 in Basel, Switzerland, tomorrow on Sunday 25 August.
To honour the medallists of the first World Championships, BWF has organised a reception on the final day of the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2019. Among the attendees are Flemming Delfs, Lene Koppen, Gillian Gilks, Nora Perry, Steen Skovgaard, Derek Talbot, Ray Stevens, Thomas Kihlstrom, Etsuko Toganoo, Emiko Ueno and Joanna Flockhart.