A visibly nervous Viktor Axelsen was pushed to the brink on Saturday but the world number one prevailed in a marathon semifinal against Japanese young gun Kodai Naraoka at the season-ending badminton World Tour Finals in Bangkok.
The Badminton World Federation shifted its $1.5 million flagship event to the Thai capital’s Nimibutr Arena after original host China dropped the tournament due to its tough Covid restrictions.
Axelsen’s confidence appeared dented following a surprise loss a day ago to India’s H.S. Prannoy -- only his third defeat this year.
Earlier this week, the Olympic champion had finished off Naraoka in 33 minutes at the group stage, but the 14th-ranked Japanese produced a lethal attack Saturday and looked a serious contender as the pair duelled for one hour and 23 minutes.
It was a battle of nerves in the first game. Axelsen was ahead by two at the interval but his opponent stepped up the pace to win 23-21 on a fourth game point.
The 28-year-old Dane regrouped to claim the second 21-19 but was under constant pressure from Naraoka’s energetic attack.
There were epic rallies and strong net play from Naraoka in the decider but he did not have the stamina to close out the match. Axelsen found seven match-point opportunities, eventually winning the tie-breaker 21-18.
Axelsen characterised the encounter as his most testing in the year.
“I respect Kodai a lot, he’s an up-and-coming player. He has a really bright future,” Axelsen said.
Naraoka told reporters he opted for low play to avoid Axelsen’s usual powerful smash winners.
Axelsen meets Indonesian star Anthony Ginting in Sunday’s final.
Earlier, Ginting outclassed compatriot Jonatan Christie in a high-paced and high-intensity clash 21-15, 11-21, 21-18.
“Both of us know our specialities, our weaknesses... the game was quite tough,” Ginting said as he praised his friend and opponent.
In the women’s draw, world champion Akane Yamaguchi crushed Olympic gold medallist Chen Yufei 21-19, 21-10 to book herself a spot in the last stage of the tournament.
“For the second game, I played well with all my power and skills and the win in the first game boosted my confidence and helped me win easily,” Yamaguchi told reporters.
Chen said her opponent is an outstanding player.
“I had no problem with my energy levels, I think I was just not decisive enough... I kept making adjustments but I think ultimately I was too slow,” the Chinese powerhouse said.
On Sunday, Yamaguchi will face off against Tai Tzu Ying of Taiwan who dispensed with China’s He Bing Jiao in the other semi-final 21-18, 21-14.
“Tomorrow I’ll try to play as fast as Yamaguchi because she has a quicker pace,” Tai told reporters.