When Viktor Axelsen missed his home DANISA Denmark Open last year after deciding on surgery for his right ankle, few would have anticipated what lay in store.
Prior to surgery he had won two successive events – the Barcelona Spain Masters and the YONEX All England. Returning in the new year, he struck up an amazing run of form that will see him go into Tokyo 2020 as the man to beat.
At the Asian Leg in January this year, he was in three successive finals – winning the YONEX Thailand Open and the TOYOTA Thailand Open, before falling to compatriot Anders Antonsen in the title bout of the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals.
He then led Denmark to the European Mixed Team Championships title in February, won the YONEX Swiss Open, was surprised by Lee Zii Jia at the All England final, before making his eighth individual final in a row, at the 2021 European Championships, that he had to concede after testing positive for Covid-19. Having won five of those finals, Axelsen has struck up a run that promises to take him all the way to gold in Tokyo, particularly as top seed Kento Momota has played only one event over the last 18 months. Axelsen’s group challengers are Kalle Kolojonen and Luka Wraber; the knockout round might see him take on Wang Tzu Wei, who can be a difficult opponent on his day.
Further ahead the quarterfinal could be a clash with either Jonatan Christie or Shi Yu Qi.
Momota himself couldn’t have asked for a better draw; if he tops his group as expected to, he is likely to face either Sai Praneeth or Ng Ka Long Angus in the quarterfinals. But Praneeth himself will have to weather the challenge of in-form Dutchman Mark Caljouw in his group. Caljouw, semifinalist at the All England this year, will fancy his chances against Praneeth and Misha Zilberman in Group D.
Lee Zii Jia’s victory at the YONEX All England in March made him the latest entrant to the league of major event winners and in turn a player to watch at Tokyo 2020.
Shouldering the legacy of his legendary countryman Lee Chong Wei at the Olympics will be no simple task, for the senior Lee featured in three successive Olympics finals. As the sole Malaysian in the men’s singles draw, Lee Zii Jia will be carrying the hopes of an expectant nation.
He will not have time to ease into the draw, for his groupmates Brice Leverdez and Artem Pochtarov have beaten him in the past. Leverdez – who nixed Lee Chong Wei’s campaign at the World Championships 2017 – beat Lee Zii Jia they last time they met, at the Princess Sirivannavari Thailand Masters 2019. Pochtarov too has a win over the Malaysian, although that was four years ago.
If Lee tops the group as he’s expected to, the formidable figure of Chen Long might stand in his way. Chen, title winner at Rio 2016, hasn’t seen international action since March 2020, but the two-time world champion is a big-match player and contender for his second Olympic gold. With their record standing at two wins apiece, theirs is likely to be the most awaited clash in the first round of knockout matches. Whoever emerges winner is due for a likely bout with second seed Chou Tien Chen in the bottom quarter.
The other big names in the lower half of the draw are Kanta Tsuneyama, Antony Sinisuka Ginting, Kantaphon Wangcharoen and Anders Antonsen who will be contending for the semifinal place from the third quarter.
Like his senior compatriot Axelsen, Antonsen too has enjoyed winning returns in a truncated season, and having won the Denmark Open, HSBC BWF World Tour Finals and the European Championships, will head to Tokyo pleased with himself.