Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn wasn’t close to being the favourite ahead of the final of the India Open. The 21-year-old Thai was inexperienced, playing his first final of a World Tour 500 or higher event, compared to his opponent Viktor Axelsen who was 13-0 since May 2021 at World Tour finals. In fact against Axelsen he was on the wrong end of a 0-6 skid against the Olympic and World champion. He had never won a game, indeed he had never come closer than 16-21 in any match against the Dane.
But if he was the underdog on paper, Vitidsarn would turn things around on the court of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi stadium beating Axelsen 22-20 10-21 21-12 in an hour and four minutes. “I’ve lost to him last six times. It is the best match I’ve played,” he would say later.
Of course, Vitidsarn was going to get rid of the 0 in his head-to-head record against Axelsen eventually. If Axelsen is the established star, Vitidsarn is seen as potentially the next big thing in world badminton. The only three-time junior world champion, he’s from the same batch of 21-year-olds that includes Japan’s World number 6 Kodai Naraoka and India’s world medallist Lakshya Sen.
Of the three, it is Vitidsarn who is seen as the game to go the furthest. He has as well, reaching the final of the 2022 World Championships where he would go on to lose to Axelsen.
Gifted with assured strokeplay, control of the shuttle has been the key to his success. He’s seen as someone who makes a few mistakes working opponents across the court before finding openings. More recently he’s been working on his fitness. In an interview with the BWF, he said he’s started running twice a week, in addition to 6 hours of daily training.
That improved fitness was crucial against Axelsen. The Dane, covers the court impressively with his 6 foot four frame and has used it to his advantage to become one of the most resolute defensive masters on the international circuit. While it helped that the Dane was a tad tired and a bit jetlagged after flying to India following his win at the Malaysia Open last week, Vitidsarn gave himself the best possible chance.
The Thai showed little nerves as he stuck to the game plan of controlling the pace of the exchanges and kept attacking which never let the Olympic and world champion settle despite playing his favoured long rallies.
“Viktor is physically bigger and stronger than me. When he has to move on the court he only needs to take a few steps. If I play long rallies without making him work he will beat me easily. So I had to attack more so that I could makeViktor work more. I had learnt that if I could engage him in long rallies and take the match to the decider then I have a chance to win. I could manage to do that today and even after losing the second game, I believed that I can win,” he added.
The game plan allowed Vitidsarn to open up 16-13 lead before Axelsen clinched five straight points to take the lead and soon earned a game point. But a lucky net cord allowed the former junior world champion to draw level and he then clinch two straight points to win his first game against the Dane on 13th attempt. Axelsen roared back in the second, racing through the game. Vitidsarn would later say that once he knew the game was lost he had focussed only on extending the rallies to tire out Axelsen as much as he could in preparation for the decider. “The main plan was to attack even when I was trailing because I thought if I drag Viktor as long as I could he would get tired, so I thought I would keep attacking.
It was a plan that played out perfectly. The top seed clearly looked more tired than his opponent during the business end of the match and handed the Thai his first Super 750 crown with an unforced error while returning a short serve.
An Se Young stuns Yamaguchi
Vitidsarn wasn’t the only youngster who overturned a losing record to beat a reigning world champion. Korea’s An Se Young did too in her 15-21 21-16 21-12 win against Akane Yamaguchi. While 20-year-old An Se Young is currently 5-10 record against Akane Yamaguchi wasn’t as lopsided as Vitidsarn’s against Axelsen, her loss at last week’s Malaysia Open was the latest in a four-match losing skid against the Japanese.
If Yamaguchi was in complete control in the opening game, Young managed to turn the tables in the second to force the decider. The Japanese had the upper hand in the initial exchanges of the third and final game before the Korean managed to win eightof the nine points from 4-7 down.
The two players then engaged in a couple of 30-plus stroke rallies and one 51-stroke rally and though Young lost those, Yamaguchi was the one who looked more tired after that and the Korean’s superior stroke play helped her seal victory.