A couple of incidents stood out in the early days of the India Open Super 750 tournament in New Delhi. They involved the 2022 men’s singles champion Lakshya Sen and the soon-to-be 2023 title winner Kunlavut Vitidsarn as he would defeat Viktor Axelsen in the final.
In a press conference on the opening day, Lakshya was addressing reporters after his win against HS Prannoy. The 21-year-old, in a relaxed mood after an impressive win against the current India No 1, was asked about the ‘class of 2018’ – a group of men’s singles shuttlers including Lakshya and Vitidsarn, who competed a fair bit against each other for big honours in the junior events that season.
And asked what it meant to see them shine at the highest level and whether it drove him, the Indian came up with a cheeky line.
“Thodi si jalan hoti hai (I do get a bit jealous),” he said as the room burst out laughing. “But it is definitely a healthy competition. You get to see very rarely like this, same year’s players that they are in and around the top 10 when they are 21. It’s always nice to play against them. When they do well, I get equally motivated and happy for them.”
The day after, Vitidsarn was asked in the mixed zone about this rivalry and rise of young players on tour. He said, “Kodai and Lakshya, both are very good. There is no pressure (of competition) now, I think about my performance first. How to control my performance.”
When asked how they compare, he replied, “They both are faster than me. Both better than me!”
Pointed out that he was a World Championships silver medallist now, his response simply was: “Lucky.”
But there was no luck involved on Sunday. A few days after Sen’s press conference remark and his own humble take on the rivalry, Vitidsarn stood on the top of the podium, towering (just) above the giant of the game that is Axelsen. The Dane had won 13 straight finals he had competed in over the last couple of years. You had to go back to All England 2021 when Lee Zii Jia beat him in an epic and then the European Championships where he had to withdraw before the final, for Axelsen’s last defeats in a title clash.
And Vitidsarn brought that stunning streak to an end on Sunday in front of a packed Indian crowd that fell increasingly in love with him, after the match had begun with the majority of them rooting for an Axelsen win for the third time at this event.
Indeed, the class of 2018 is doing rather well for itself. The four men on the podium of the 2018 BWF World Junior Championships were: Kunlavut Vitidsarn (gold), Kodai Naraoka (silver), Lakshya Sen and Li Shi Feng (bronze). Lakshya and Li Shi Feng played the final of the Youth Olympic Games that year, with the Indian winning silver. And at the Asian Championships, Lakshya won gold while Vitidsarn won silver.
And fast forward to the start of 2022, the four shuttlers are in the top 20 in the senior BWF men’s singles world rankings. And Vitidsarn, with his stunning win against Axelsen in the final of the India Open, is now leading the pack on the world stage.
“With those two I have travelled a lot, continuously two-three years I was just playing with them,” Lakshya had said. “Sometimes I have trained with Kunlavut as well in Thailand in my childhood. We speak a lot to each other even during tournaments. We really have a good batch and it motivates me to do well. Both of them [Kodai and Kunlavut] are doing extremely well.”
Super Sunday for Vitidsarn
Having never won a game against Axelsen in their past six meetings, Vitidsarn started on the front foot and put the Dane under pressure immediately. One of the keys to defeating Axelsen, as rare as it is these days, is to throw him off his game early and try to frustrate him. That is what happened in Delhi, when at one point Axelsen nearly went to smash his racket before pulling out. But it still wasn’t easy for Vitidsarn who had to constantly keep Axelsen at bay. For the first time, he managed to go past 16 points in a game against the Dane and then in an epic finish, took the lead 22-20. That opening game, as both Axelsen and Vitidsarn admitted later, was crucial.
Interestingly, there is an evident parallel to how Vitidsarn won his 2018 World Junior Championships title and his first major BWF World Tour title. Aware of his opponent’s strength in playing rallies, the Thai shuttler – against Naraoka then and Axelsen now – pressed into an attacking game early.
The BWF report from the 2018 final read, “Vitidsarn’s coach Udom promised his player would not allow Naraoka such liberties – he would play a pressing style and force his opportunity. Vitidsarn executed his strategy perfectly. True to style, Naraoka challenged him to a baseline duel, but the Thai kept clipping the shuttle down, forcing the Japanese to lunge forward and lift. Every so often, Vitidsarn pushed the pace and fired into the openings. It was decisive, opportunistic play – and Vitidsarn gave nothing away in the form of errors.”
Decisive, pressing, aggressive. That was the key for Vitidsarn on Sunday in Delhi too as he often caught Axelsen by surprise with the speed of his rallies, an aspect of his game that he evidently didn’t rate that highly but showed he was no slouch on court. Axelsen too acknowledged after the match that it was Vitidsarn’s day and he got the better of him, while his own attacking game and presence on the court wasn’t as sharp as he wanted to be.
If Axelsen is the benchmark in world badminton, then these three young men have done decently well in the recent past. Lakshya and Vitidsarn have both defeated the Dane over his incredible win streak, while Naraoka pushed him to 83 minutes at the BWF World Tour Finals 2022, the longest match the Dane has been involved in since the Denmark Open 2021 final against Kento Momota.
And among these, Vitidsarn’s win in the final in Delhi stands out because Axelsen simply doesn’t lose finals these days and the Thai youngster had never before taken a game off him.
“I think it’s only good for world badminton,” the world No 1 said later in the press conference when asked about the trio. “There should be young players coming up all the time, it is natural part of the game. It is good to see these guys coming up and playing well. There will be upcoming players and there will be players retiring, I have been on tour for many years and it’s great to see.”
But would it be fair to say Vitidsarn is a little ahead of the remaining players in the group? “Well, this week he was. Let’s see if he can keep doing next week and so on. Last week, he lost against Kodai [after a 113-minute marathon in Malaysia]. So obviously we will see who will come up to the best player,” said Axelsen.
In fact, on Wednesday, Vitidsarn was asked if Axelsen is unbeatable. He took a couple of seconds to understand what the question was but once he did, he smiled widely and said: “Really hard. I have to try, but even if I lose [against him] it is okay, I just want to learn.”
It is this attitude that has seen the three-time junior world champion, and now a senior World Championships silver medallist too, emerge as the flag-bearer for the men’s singles class of 2018. He might not think he is the best among the four, but the numbers don’t lie as he emerged as the new world No 6 two days after the India Open win, the highest-ranked among his peers.