India Open may just be the beginning of a change impending on the badminton World Tour.
Two youngsters - An Se Young and Kunlavut Vitidsarn - have come out of the shadow of badminton’s two stars, Akane Yamaguchi and Viktor Axelsen, the winners of Worlds, World Tour Finals, and recently, at the Malaysia Open.
It is rare to see top seeds and two-time world champions, Yamaguchi and Axelsen, both lose on the same day.
But on January 22, the two, considered invincible for the better part of 2022, found themselves at the receiving end of two agile and intelligent youngsters.
While Young fought back from a game deficit to win, Vitidsarn dominated the proceedings from the word go.
The win of the youngsters -- in the season’s only second Super Series -- also gave an early sign of what 2023 may unfold for badminton - wherein heavyweights, Yamaguchi and Axelsen, will no more be outright on-paper winners.
Korean prodigy Young has been in the circuit for a while and has already won 12 titles, including a Super Series Premier in Indonesia Open.
Vitidsarn, on the other hand, was still gasping for the limelight in the shadow of two of his fast-rising contemporaries, Lakshya Sen and Kodai Naraoka.
But the win against Axelsen has facilitated his arrival in the same league of the two.
Vitidsarn rides on agility and speed against Axelsen
Coached by his father, the 21-year-old stunned Axelsen by being more agile and quick on the frontcourt and adding more control to his racquet.
Despite being young and lacking Axelsen’s wealth of experience, Vitidsarn did the most obvious thing by not lifting the shuttle to avoid being smacked by the towering Dane.
It was a noticeable change in his play after a booming smash left him grounded in the second game.
As valuable inputs came regularly, the Thai started bringing the Dane closer to the net to score crucial points.
In the decider, Axelsen tried to be faster on his foot and earned the lead, but when Vitidsarn came back with a net flick, the game was poised for an electrifying finish, with both players engaging in longer rallies and points became harder to earn.
Smash was not the best stroke against a tall player like Axelsen -something Vitidsarn knew very well.
So, he brought his array of strokes into the attack, mixing more speed with quick court coverage to fetch points.
Such was the versatility of his game, with crosscourt flicks, drops, and angled drives making fore, that he cruised to beat Axelsen 21-12 to end his five-match losing streak to the Olympic champion.
Young settles scores with Yamaguchi
In the women’s singles final, Young (20) showed unrelenting consistency in attack and stonewalling defence to stun two-time world champion Yamaguchi in a three-game nail-biter.
This win meant Young also ended her four-match losing streak against the Japanese.
It was a follow-up of what Young did against He Bingjiao in the semifinal, thumping the Chinese with great anticipation, measured drops, and depth placements.
In the final on Sunday, the world no. 4 Korean faced the opponent who had recently beaten her at the Malaysia Open final.
This time, however, the result was different.
Young lost the opening game but staged a stunning comeback to force the match into a decider.
Recovering from a 2-4 deficit, Young held her nerves to take an 11-8 lead at the interval with immaculate slow crosscourt drops and shrewd net play.
The game saw both players engaging in two breathtaking rallies, of 32 and 51 shots, but Young clinched the Super Series title with a convincing 21-11 win in the third game.
Her change of strategy midgame has also shown that she took a few more strides towards dominating women’s singles, which otherwise has been a closely-contested battleground between the top eight players.
The Japanese prevail after a walkover from China
The excitement of the doubles finals, however, was tamped down by the illness of Chinese shuttlers, as Wang Yilyu and Chen Qingchen suffered from diarrhoea.
The Chinese shuttlers gave a walkover to the mixed and women’s doubles finale, which resulted in Japanese pairings, Yuta Watanabe-Arisa Higashino and Nami Matsuyama-Chiharu Shida, winning the titles without touching the shuttle.
But what remained evident was China’s domination in doubles. Three Chinese pairings reached the finals, with Liang Weikeng-Wang Chang winning the men’s doubles title.
India disappoints at home
India’s poor run in the World Tour continued to be a cause for concern for fans.
The last time Indian shuttlers won a title was in October 2022, when the pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty was crowned French Open champion.
In men’s singles, while Kidambi Srikanth and H.S. Prannoy were eliminated early, Lakshya could not progress beyond the round of 16, losing to Rasmus Gemke 21-16, 15-21, 18-21.
In women’s singles, P.V. Sindhu, playing in her second event since recovering from a hamstring injury, looked rusty and was knocked out in the first round by Thai youngster Supanida Katethong.
Saina Nehwal, India’s second hope in women’s singles, bowed out in the second round, losing to Chen Yufei.
In doubles, with Satwisairaj and Chirag pulling out due to injury, India’s hopes for a title were put to bed.
With the Olympic qualification cycle starting soon, time is ticking fast for the Indian shuttlers. And Indonesia Masters will be a chance for them to return to form.