During his run to the top of the podium at the 2022 BWF World Championships in Tokyo, Viktor Axelsen produced many jaw-dropping moments. The man who came to the tournament with an aura of invincibility around him, became world champion for the second time. He did not drop a game.

Axelsen’s performances in Tokyo last year and this year (he didn’t drop a game at the Olympic Games either) have made people wonder if he is from Planet Earth.

“Coming from another planet? (pauses... laughs) It’s a fun statement. I can tell you that I am from this world, coming from this planet. (laughs again) How can I say... I see it as people believing in me, and they think that I’m a good player and it gives me a lot of motivation,” Axelsen told BWF after his title win.

Indeed so, why is it that Axelsen is so good at the moment? The Dane has lost one match all year and we are in August now, at the back-end of the season. India’s Lakshya Sen is the only man to defeat him in a completed match in 2022. The 28-year-old has won 41 matches this year and 37 of those on the trot.

“I would say that compared to the past, he’s definitely developed the physical part of his game. So it’s a lot harder now to actually make him insecure... now he’s trusting his physique all the way,” Danish shuttler Hans-Kristian Vittinghus, who has seen Axelsen’s rise from close quarters for a long time now, told Scroll.in from Osaka, Japan.

“If you want to be able to beat him, you have to be able to put the shuttle on the floor. And very, very few people can do that against Viktor.”

Putting the shuttle down on the floor... in essence, that is all badminton is about, isn’t it? Axelsen, it would seem, has taken the core of the sport into his heart and decided he would it make it the hardest task there is for his opponents.

In the semifinal, the Dane was being tested by the gritty Chou Tien Chen. The World No 4 had reached this far from the brink, saving five match points to break his quarterfinal jinx and getting this far when he is 32... he wasn’t going to make it easy for Axelsen. At 18-16 in the second game, Chou made Axelsen work hard on his backhand side, made him play three different kinds of defensive shots but the shuttle kept coming back.

For the fourth time, he went to Axelsen’s backhand again. This time tracking back, loading the last ounce of physical strength he had left, launching himself high and nailing a near-perfect downward smash... the shuttle nearly hit the floor.

But nearly is not good enough against Axelsen, as he dug it out with yet another backhand defensive shot. The rally continued for just four more shots.

“How on earth has Axelsen won that point?” wondered the commentator... and all of us watching.

In the final, Axelsen utterly dominated Kunlavut Vitidsarn in the first game but the Thai shuttler fought back in the second. The rallies were getting longer, he wasn’t going to let Axelsen breeze to the title. At 6-6 in the second game, Vitidsarn played a delightfully disguised drop shot that drew Axelsen forward and then loaded another big smash to Axelsen’s backhand side. It was probably good enough to be a winner but he took a couple of steps ahead to the net, just in case Axelsen sent a loose shuttle back. But no, Axelsen not only defended the smash, he used his wrists to play a crosscourt shot that was an outright winner.

Vitidsarn looked up... looked down... looked at his coaches... the three-time junior world champion, in that instance, must have just found out what it would take to be a senior world champion. He smiled.

Sometimes the most complex of thoughts can be broken down by the simplest of words. Vitidsarn said after the match when asked about Axelsen’s level in the second game, “Yeah, yeah, he is really good with attack. He is really good with defence. It is so difficult to play with him.”

Axelsen’s physique is a blessing most times, as the reach provided by his 6-foot-4 (194 cm) frame, and power in attack makes him a beast of an opponent. But it is not that simple, as maybe even a PV Sindhu could attest to. Badminton’s technical aspects make it a sport that is height agnostic.

“Yeah, of course, being tall gives me an opportunity to play from a higher height, play steeper and straight smashes,” Axelsen had told Scroll.in back in 2018 when he was in India. “But it also requires you to lunge down really deep and that’s something I have to work on. You can’t change your body, other than doing what you can to stay fit and be flexible and strong. And focus on the things I can change. It requires a lot of hard work.”

That work has not just been physical for the man from Odense, who started playing when he was six. From his days as a junior champion (2010), through his early years on the senior circuit, and even the first time he was world champion in 2017, the Dane was viewed as a physical specimen who could sometimes be rattled mentally. He then went about improving his decision-making process on court. In essence, instead of seeing a shot in a rally as an opportunity to win a point, he refined it further... whether he is playing a good shot or a bad one, making a good decision or a bad one.

“If you look at a guy like (Kento) Momota, who used to be able to beat him regularly, he was basically, and this sounds a little bit too simple, just rallying with him, trusting that he would physically win in the long run,” Vittinghus explained.

“Because Viktor would lose his head and start going for the easy points, going for winners all the time. But you don’t see him making those bad decisions anymore, because now he’s trusting his physique all the way through.

“Part of it is not necessarily so much working specifically on his defence, I think it’s just as much an approach in his game that has changed. You see him being a lot more patient. I think of course, he’s also working on his defence and is technically better and everything. But it’s also like a different approach he has now compared to two years ago,” Vittinghus, a former Top 8 shuttler in the world, added.

One just has to revisit the closing stages of 2017 World Championships final against Lin Dan to understand the differences better.

Leading 13-7 in the second game against the five-time champion and arguably the greatest of all time, in Glasgow, Axelsen started tensing up. His body got tighter, he was letting shuttles drop well in, his serve had completely deserted him, he moved on the court like there was a block of stone tied to his legs... but somehow, he hung on and became world champion.

“No longer is he a man of frailty, he is now the best in the world,” said Gillian Clark on air.

“If you could see me on the inside, I was shaking and I told my coach I was f-ing nervous,” Axelsen then said in the on-court interview.

Axelsen after 2017 World Championships final / AFP

Even at the Tokyo Olympics, the tears came out in buckets as he completed a life-long dream.

But here at World Championships, he just lifted his arms, smiled, went to embrace his opponent and lay down on the court with a sense of relief. From here on, it is a question of delivering on the high expectations around him and dealing with the pressure of being the best in the world.

“I think in every way, I see him as a much more complete player now compared to 2017. In 2017, obviously, he was still one of the best. He also had a bronze from Rio, but you did not necessarily expect him to win. I did, personally, because I was training with him and his training period building up to that World Championships, he was insane. But I will say back then he was much more again, this attacking guy. The pace was extremely high, and you were under immense pressure constantly. I think the Viktor you see now, he’s more calm, he’s more collected, he has already won everything, he hadn’t at that time,” Vittinghus said.

Mentally, Axelsen is in a completely different zone to where he used to be a few years back. He has his own personal mental coach in Denmark, BS Christiansen, a former soldier from the Danish special force army unit Jægerkorpse.

“There’s no doubt that has had an a huge effect. Because Viktor is a lot more difficult nowadays to kind of get out of his own rhythm and be shaken. He’s much more mentally stable than he used to be. That was one of his big issues. And again, one of the things that Momota actually played on was to kind of unravel him in terms of his mental state. It is so difficult to do that now. It still happens every now and then. But you very rarely see that,” Vittinghus said.

“In the past, he was much more controlled by his emotions which is also why he kept on going back to doing what is natural for him, which is attack and go for winners. That’s still the natural thing for him, no doubt about that. But he knows that it’s not necessarily the best road to go down every rally. He’s much more in sync all the time, no matter what happens. But that’s why I say if you want to beat him, that’s still one of the things where you have to try and challenge him a little bit. You need to get him mentally rattled in some way. And how to do that, that’s a really good question.”

Lakshya found a way in Germany, as he frustrated Axelsen with his rallying, fashioning a sensational comeback from 8-15 down. But soon after when they met at the All England final, Axelsen turned the tables, frustrating Lakshya with a solid defensive display. That day in Birmingham, he was a wall.

“I think it’s a very good example and you’ll see how much he learned from that match against Lakshya,” Vittinghus said. “And I think what you saw there against Lakshya was a bit more of the old Viktor, because you won’t see that kind of gap in concentration right now. It’s just unimaginable.”

Axelsen’s move to Dubai has been talked about a lot in recent times. The Dane has shifted base to United Arab Emirates for a few reasons (ease of travel among and asthma issues among those), and since then, he has been training on occasions with a group of talented young shuttlers he has invited over... among those are Loh Kean Yew and Lakshya, two men who have done the near impossible, having beaten him in the last year. (Stretching back to November last year, the only other player to defeat Axelsen is HS Prannoy). The World No 1 has no sense of insecurity in this knowledge exchange and knows that for his move to work, he needs to train with the best. Vittinghus, for his part, isn’t surprised by that at all.

“I think that is also because of the system he’s grown up in actually, and this is not to try and sound like Denmark is perfect or anything. But it’s always been like that, and the National Centre in Denmark, we need to share our knowledge with all the Danish players who are there even though we may be competitors,” the Danish veteran explained.

“So I think it’s very natural for him that he knows he cannot do this on his own. He needs to get help from others. And if he wants to get help from others, he needs to give something back as well. So I think it’s just very natural for him. He’s been in a system like that forever.”

Armed with a staunch belief in his process, Axelsen has kept fine-tuning his game constantly to go from an exciting young shuttler to a good shuttler who could beat anyone on his day to now the man to beat in the sport, the undoubted best in the world at the moment.

He had told this writer a few years back that ranking meant nothing to him, it was all about the big titles... and now that he has those, it is all about the small percentages. Of just getting better.

“What I want, is to reach my full potential. I want to become as good as I possibly can, then outside the court get better as a person. And I want to be the best dad I can possibly be. I always try to focus on my process,” he said on Sunday.

“I still have a long road ahead of me. I try to take every day as it comes and try to get better and better every day. And you know, I still feel like I can become a better player. And that’s my main goal.”