Clinical Axelsen exposes Srikanth's shortcomings

Viktor Axelsen and Kidambi Srikanth pose with their winner's and runners-up trophies, respectively, after the India Open final. PTI Photo/Arun Sharma

It may have ended in the best way possible, but Viktor Axelsen's week in Delhi playing the India Open World Tour 500 didn't start off promisingly.

Axelsen was coming off a disheartening 10th straight career loss to Japan's Kento Momota in the final of the All England Championships. He showed up for his first practice session wearing a face mask, so as to not aggravate his asthma in the capital's notoriously poor air. His opening match against Misha Zilberman was the last match of the day and got over at close to 11 PM. Following that, he found out that his official bus had left the venue -- a situation he posted about on his Instagram profile -- forcing him to wait for alternate transport that eventually dropped him off at his hotel close to midnight.

His next match was played amidst only a scattering of spectators, some of whom loudly mocked his record against Momota. He had earlier been grumbling over the lack of turnout at the tournament and now he commented caustically that perhaps the BWF ought to focus on having, in his words, "fewer tournaments of higher quality".

All was forgiven on Sunday at the KD Jadhav Stadium, where he flung racquet, wristband and t-shirt, in that order, into the crowd who cheered him even as he demolished Kidambi Srikanth in straight games 21-7, 22-20 for his second title of 2019. It was the kind of clinical performance he's been putting together all week. The Indian came close to pushing him to his first decider of the tournament with two game points at 20-18 in the second game, but that period of play was an aberration in the manner the rest of the 36-minute-long match had been played.

In all, the match went only a little better for Srikanth than the 21-7, 21-12 hiding he received from Axelsen the last time they played each other in this tournament -- in the pre-quarterfinals of the 2017 edition, which was also won by Axelsen.

Axelsen seemed to have a simple strategy. He constantly kept Srikanth pinned to the back of the court with powerful drives, forcing the Indian to eventually falter and send a return a little weaker than his own. His reach ensured he could hit smash winners the moment any of Srikanth's shots looped closer to the mid-court. The tactic also ensured that Srikanth would never be able to do his business at the net, where he is the superior operator.

Even during the closing stages of the second game, when Srikanth appeared likely to force a decider, as he had in all but one of the four matches he had played so far in the tournament, Axelsen didn't let up and play safe shots. He continued to go for his smashes and target the corner, catching Srikanth with a crosscourt smash to his backhand to seal the win. "I think he was a little brave in the end to pull out such points in such a way," admitted the Indian.

All in all, it was a near-perfect match for the Danish World No. 4. "It was a good way to bounce back following the All England final," he admitted. It also affirmed the fact that the ankle injury that gutted his 2018 season was well in the past and that the Dane would certainly be challenging for plenty of titles the rest of the year.

Indeed, the result was one that left plenty of questions for Srikanth to ponder. The loss was only his second in eight finals at the World Tour 500/Superseries stage but the nature of the defeat was particularly galling. "Maybe if it would have been a decider, I think I would have had much better chances," Srikanth said after the game.

But the fact remains that Srikanth wasn't able to pull off the point that would have given him that opportunity.

While Srikanth's four Superseries titles in 2017 remain a remarkable achievement, it has to be noted that that those results came in a year when Momota, the current world champion, was still on the comeback trail from a suspension. Of the six quarterfinals and two semifinals Srikanth played in 2018, four losses were against Momota

The emphatic nature of Srikanth's second straight loss to Axelsen, who himself has a lopsided 1-11 record against Momota, would further point to his diminished status in the game today and the fact that there seems to be a definite gulf between Srikanth and the absolute elite in world badminton today. Even getting to the final meant that Srikanth had to fight through three grueling early matches of the sort he wouldn't have to face in his pomp.

These are not issues Axelsen will be dealing with, though. He's next competing in the Malaysia Open World Tour Super 750. It's a serious challenge and a likely quarterfinal against his nemesis Momota looms menacingly. But for now, the momentum is on his side and as he flies to Kuala Lumpur, he will believe he holds many of the answers.