As Lee Young Dae addressed the gathering in Mandarin on the eve of the start of the Premier Badminton League (PBL), most of the players on the dais and the rest of the audience looked towards the interpreter seated in the front row for a helpful summation. Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, though, listened with rapt attention, giving occasional nods and smiles. "It's a useful language to know," the Dane admitted later, "It allows me to make more friends on the tour. Badminton is such a big sport in China; so I can use it for sponsorship purposes and other events."
The other advantage is that it sometimes offers him a drift of a Chinese opponent's tactics during a match - a coach hollering instructions to his player mid-game for instance - Axelsen smiles before saying, "It's not that I'm always listening but yes it does help me understand Chinese players better." He has one-one-sessions with his teacher in Beijing via 'We chat' apart from online classroom sessions. "It's really intense but fun." His post-match interview - answering a Chinese journalist in chaste Mandarin - after losing to China's Chen Long at the Rio Olympics turned into a viral hit in China.
Currently ranked No 2 and 3 in the world respectively, Jan O Jorgensen and compatriot Axelsen are the only two European players in the top 10 among a gaggle of south-east Asians. Axelsen, 22, finished with a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics after a win over Chinese legend Lin Dan, one that he describes as an 'emotional' moment. "It's like a match you've been practicing your whole life. So the feeling that comes with a win is just inexplicable," he says.
In 2010, Axelsen became the first-ever European to be crowned world junior champion. Five years later he won his first European title, beating senior compatriot and training partner Jorgensen in the final. Jorgensen, 29, too has a slice of history to his name - in 2014 he became the first European male singles player to win the Indonesia Open. He also came agonizingly close to an All-England title, losing in the final to China's Chen Long.
It's been a tough climb for the Danes. Sustaining it, even more daunting. "It's very difficult," says Jorgensen , "I've been competing for over ten years on the Super Series level so it's been a long journey and a lot has happened since I started playing on the tour." Axelsen agrees, "It's so hard to hold on to your spot with so many guys pushing from the lower ranks, trying to come up, you really have to be consistent through the whole year. Rankings can get to your head, so I try not to think about it too much."
Badminton in Denmark owes a large share of its legacy and successes to a former visiting English troupe. The story goes that in 1928, the Strollers team, which promoted badminton through Europe, led by Major McCallum arrived in the seaport town of Esjberg in Denmark and were disallowed entry by customs officials who had never seen a shuttle of that kind before. The Strollers then demonstrated the use of the shuttle and the officials ended up playing themselves.
Denmark richly gained from the tour which became an annual feature leading to the mushrooming of clubs across the country and a sharp spike in the popularity of the sport. Today there are around 600 clubs - a telling number of badminton's standing in the legion of more popular sports like football and handball in the Scandinavian country. The nation's love for badminton was though put through an onerous test during the Second World War. With the country invaded by Nazi troops, light and heat in playing halls were cut off but the Danes stuck by the sport.
Despite being the fourth most popular sport in Denmark today, it isn't exactly pursued for lucre. "We are not at the level of China," Axelsen adds observing that a tournament like the ongoing Premier Badminton League (PBL) helps plug the gaps in monetary gains for European players who travel through the most of the year to south-east Asian countries since a bulk of international tournaments are staged there. "Tournaments like the PBL are a huge boon for us. They run for a fortnight and we're paid well to be here," he says. Jorgensen was taken aboard by PBL's Delhi Acers franchise this season for Rs 59 lakhs, the second most costliest player after Olympic gold medalist Carolina Marin (61.5 lakhs). Axelsen earned a fee of Rs 39 lakhs from the Bengaluru Blasters.
Axelsen, in fact, doesn't rule out shifting base to south east Asia in the future. It's a prospect he seems to be chewing on. Jorgensen shakes his head even before he hears the question out, "I'll stay put in Denmark," he says, "I'm happy with what we have back home."
In Kunshan, China last year, both Jorgensen and Axelsen were part of an epoch-making setting - one that brought the Thomas Cup to Denmark and Europe for the first time. Denmark had made the finals of the famed biennial team championship eight times previously. Jorgensen briefly searches for an apt expression to sum up the experience, picking the most poignant one. "Most of us cried that day," he says.
Comparisons with some of their more illustrious predecessors, Morten Frost (also known as Mr Badminton) and Peter Gade are tough to avert, Axelsen admits. He wears them lightly though, "People could draw up names, but I'm not here trying to be somebody else." A brief period of lull followed the retirements in 2012 of two of the Nordic country's most accomplished singles players in recent years - Gade and Tina Baun. It whirred back to life with Axelsen and Jorgensen climbing the rankings, winning titles and frustrating the Chinese.
With both players competing in the same tournaments and fighting for the same titles, an inadvertent sense of rivalry often seeps in. "It's the everyday training that pushes us. We both know exactly what the other is going through since we follow the same path and have similar goals," says Jorgensen.
"But it's not like we're best buddies or are having dinner together every day."