The column is back after a bit of a break. With the Fifa World cup going on I was completely engrossed in it just like the rest of the world, and now that Leo Messi has reiterated himself as the G.O.A.T, it is time to get writing again. The USA Badminton Senior National Championships also concluded a fortnight ago and I was pretty impressed with the upcoming talent there, but more on that later sometime.

After the last column, we did an experiment on Twitter where we asked the readers to come up with topics they want me to write about for Shuttle Zone. Badminton fan Sunil, (Twitter: @dvs_mi), came up with an interesting question: are men’s singles players on the World Tour transitioning from attacking to a more defensive style of play in recent times?

This column will be around that idea, reflecting on the overall pattern in the game in men’s singles and where the top Indian players stand in the discipline.

For starters, yes, I do believe players are transitioning from attacking play to a more counter-attacking style of play in recent times. Let me try to explain my view by breaking it down into multiple factors.

A tale of two finals

Let’s talk about two of the most contrasting game styles by the same athlete in two big matches: the G.O.A.T, China’s Lin Dan. Matches at the biggest stage – the Olympic Games in 2008 and 2012 – against the same opponent, his arch-rival and one of Malaysia’s biggest sporting icons Lee Chong Wei.

In 2008, Lin Dan, 25 at the time, was an attacking machine. I have never witnessed a more explosive attacking performance in my life from start to finish. Lin Dan was in sixth gear and Chong Wei didn’t stand a chance. Whereas in 2012, a 29-year-old Lin Dan again got the better of LCW. But this time in an extremely close three-set final where he was far more defensive in comparison to the 2008 clash, and relied more on angles and counter-attacking style of play than brute power and speed.

Lin Dan of China (L) celebrates after defeating Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia in the men's singles gold medal play-off badminton match of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, at the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium on August 17, 2008. Lin defeated Lee by 21-12, 21-8 to claim the gold medal. AFP PHOTO/Indranil MUKHERJEE
China's Lin Dan (L) consoles Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei after his victory during the Men's Singles badminton gold medal match at the London 2012 Olympic Games in London, on August 5, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY

I wish I had the stats to back it up, but anyone who has watched both finals will agree with me. The number one reason for the switch, in my opinion, is sustainability. I do not believe Lin Dan would have had a career as long as he did had he not switched game styles. Lee Chong Wei more or less stuck to his explosive attacking style of play throughout his career.

The top three male badminton players in 2008 were Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Jin – all of them played a very attacking brand of badminton. Chen Jin, born in 1986, retired from pro badminton in 2014 whereas Lin Dan, 30 at the time, took a sabbatical from the sport and came back to become even more defensive and played till 2020 at a high level. He perhaps wouldn’t have continued with an all-out attacking game style he had till 2010.

More players switched game styles to prolong their careers namely Sony Dwi, Lee Hyun Il, and Simon Santoso.

Current Scenario

Let’s look at the current roster of top men’s singles badminton players. You’ve got Viktor Axelsen, who has also transitioned to a more counter-attacking style of play with his long reach. His attack which includes the big steep smashes is great, but what works for him is that the players can’t breach through his defence easily. With his long reach, and the use of slow shuttles, he just finds a way to reset the rally which, throughout the match, gets the opponents so frustrated. They end up going for sharper and higher risk shots against him, thus leading to more errors.

Have a look at the final of the World Championships he played against Thai youngster Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The latter had to play such high-risk shots in the second game to win points. The youngster’s passive style in the first game just fetched him five points because currently, no one plays the passive counter-attacking style of game better than Axelsen.

We then have Loh Kean Yew and Anthony Ginting who are among the most proactive attacking players on the tour. However, if you look at their results, they have been hit or miss... they are prone to early exits in tournaments when they don’t click. A classic example is Loh’s win over Axelsen at the Denmark Open where the hall is comparatively smaller and the shuttles were faster from one end for a big tier event thus encouraging attacking play. That comes in contrast to his defeat the following week in Paris against the Danish superstar and occasional training partner, where the hall is bigger and the shuttles are slower.

Next there are Lee Zi Jia and HS Prannoy who do not possess the same attacking intensity as Loh or Ginting but are far more consistent and have more variety in their attack from the backcourt and have stronger defensive abilities. There is also Mr. Consistent Chou Tien Chen from Taiwan who always seems to make it to at least the quarterfinals of big events with his counter-attacking style of play but is relatively straightforward in his attacking play and relies more on his physicality. Chou doesn’t have enough range to go and outright win more high-tier events.

Viktor Axelsen at 2022 World Championships | AFP

Then you have the three youngsters in Lakshya Sen, Kunlavut, and Kodai Naraoka – from the same junior batch of 2018 – who all play a similar counter-punch game to Axelsen. Lakshya has the biggest smash among them all, Kunlavut is the most skillful at the front of the court and has more range of shots, whereas Naraoka is physically the best and can keep up his style of play throughout the match and probably has the best defence among the three.

The conditions

Denmark’s Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, a former top 10 shuttler, came up with a badminton wish-list for 2022 in December 2021 where he wrote this:

Stop giving us slow shuttles for almost all events, especially at big “slow” arenas
Why: Because it encourages a slow, overly patient game and makes badminton more of a physical battle than a technical/tactical one. Listen, I personally love slow shuttles and slow conditions, it’s great for me, just look at what conditions I’ve produced my best badminton in… But we are at a point now where we are playing in very slow conditions almost all the time. It’s not speeding up the game, on the contrary it gives longer rallies, longer breaks and a less interesting game.

— HK Vittinghus

I couldn’t agree more with Hans. Apart from a few world tour events, the shuttles just look ridiculously slow which encourages defensive badminton as no player can sustain to successfully play high-intensity attacking badminton. The reason why Axelsen struggled at the World Tour Finals in December more than in other tournaments is that he couldn’t play the passive counter-attacking game from one end as lifting in Bangkok was tougher to control due to drift in the arena. Axelsen relies a lot on his lifting for his counter-attack style of play. Faster conditions get Axelsen outside his comfort zone where he has to attack from the start of the rally which I feel he doesn’t prefer as much as he prefers counter-attacking.

The top Indian trio in men’s singles

With the race to the Paris Olympics starting very soon and only two spots maximum per country up for grabs, it’s going to be interesting how HS Prannoy, Lakshya Sen and Kidambi Srikanth plan the upcoming season.

As per the BWF rankings on January 3, Prannoy is the new Indian No 1 at world No 8. Lakshya follows at No 10, and Srikanth is No 13.

Srikanth is not the same attacking player he once was especially if you have watched his attacking masterclass in the finals of the 2014 China Open. As the years have passed and with the injuries he has had, Srikanth has opted for more efficiency in attack though this game style doesn’t come naturally to him. Consistency in the longer rallies at the extremely slow conditions has been an area of concern. He could well be targeting Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand Opens where the shuttles have been historically fast from one end.

Back in the top 8, Prannoy is probably the most in-form Indian men’s singles player on the World Tour at the moment. More importantly, he is one of the few players who has managed to beat Axelsen twice in recent times. Prannoy always had the attack but ever since he changed his physical conditioning program, he has been moving well and his recovery after the defensive shots are the quickest it has ever been in his whole career. If he carries the momentum into the 2023 season, he has a big chance of securing his ticket to Paris.

HS Prannoy interview: ‘I have the game to beat anybody, need to work on consistency’

The youngest of them all is Lakshya who has had a breakthrough season on World Tour in 2022. He won his first Super 500 title, reached the All England final and enjoyed memorable outings at the Thomas Cup and the Commonwealth Games too. Lakshya is also one of the three players to have defeated Axelsen in 2022 when he downed the Dane at the German Open. In my view, he has had an issue with playing back-to-back tournaments which will need to be sorted out by his team as he is going to be playing a lot in quest for points in 2023. But I would say, Lakshya’s game style, for now, seems to be perfect for the demands and conditions on the BWF World tour.

Future of the sport

Just like buzzword in cricket these days – #Bazball – I feel attacking badminton could generate more viewership, which is something the sport desperately needs. As much as I loved their high-intensity attacking gameplay, Bao Chunlai at 27, Chen Jin at 28, and even Chong Wei retired due to physical issues. But Lin Dan played at a high level to his late 30s. Danish players in the past have prolonged their careers but most Asian athletes have retired in their early 30s due to the physical punishment their bodies have taken over the years.

In my opinion, the next-gen players are already thinking in the long run how many years they can sustain playing high-quality world-class badminton. Also it is important to understand that there is only a short time where an athlete can make monetary gains and the player would want to keep playing as long as they can. But if we continue playing with slow shuttles at major tournaments, the younger players will continue to opt for the counter-attacking style of play as it gives them the best chance to win and sustain at the highest level.

The 2008 version of Lin Dan was great to watch, just like an absolute box office entertainment movie that a regular non-badminton viewer would also enjoy on any given day. On the other hand, the 2022 Axelsen with his super-efficient gameplay is a Christopher Nolan masterclass that niche badminton fanatics will enjoy more than perhaps a neutral, non-regular fan.

Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player, who reached a career-high world ranking of No 32 in men’s doubles. Having recently retired from the highest level of the sport, Shlok is currently head coach at Triangle Badminton & Table Tennis in North Carolina, USA. You can read the other pieces in his column, Shuttle Zone here.