Axelsen: Packed badminton schedule increases injury risk for players Photograph:( AFP )
One of the finest badminton players of the current generation - Viktor Axelsen – in an exclusive interview with Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about the issue of fitness post-lockdown, badminton without fans, international travel for tournaments, his terrific run at the All England Championship, and much more.
One of the finest badminton players of the current generation, an Olympic medalist in 2016, world champion in 2017, a former world No. 1 and the winner of All England Open 2020 – Viktor Axelsen – graced the 50th episode of WION Sports Broadband Edition as he, in an exclusive interview with Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke about the issue of fitness post-lockdown, badminton without fans, international travel for tournaments, his terrific run at the All England Championship, and much more.
Digvijay Singh Deo: Viktor, how have you been doing? Have the last couple of months with all the coronavirus restrictions in place been difficult?
Viktor Axelsen: The last few months have been a challenge for every person on the planet. It has been a tough time for us athletes since we haven't been able to follow our usual routines.
DSD: Denmark has managed to deal with this pandemic much better than a lot of other European nations - and I believe there is even a plan to open up the borders and travel later this month...In your opinion, do you think the people in your country share the view that the worst of the pandemic is behind them?
Viktor Axelsen: I can't really speak on behalf of the people of Denmark. I can only follow the guidelines which have been laid out by the government. The situation is certainly improving here and I just hope that other countries are also able to contain the virus.
DSD: Since you are used to travelling all over the world, how frustrating has this period been for you?
Viktor Axelsen: It has been very frustrating. I'm used to a certain kind of lifestyle, which includes travelling for tournaments all over the world. However, because of this pandemic, everything has been put on hold. It has been a huge challenge to stay physically and mentally fit. I think it's important to take things one day at a time and that's what I've been doing.
DSD: You've been a busy man during the lockdown though, Viktor - your social media feeds are buzzing with videos of you exercising and teaching some badminton shots or commenting on the latest developments in your sport.
Viktor Axelsen: I certainly enjoy using social media to communicate with the rest of the world. Being an athlete, I am in a fortunate position, so I can motivate others and give them a few tips which they might find useful. That is a huge privilege for me and I try to help out as much as I can, maybe in the future, I will get a chance to do more.
DSD: Have you had a chance to return to the badminton courts and start proper training?
Viktor Axelsen: We've been fortunate here in Denmark that the situation has improved considerably, so we have been able to return to practice.we haven't been able to start full-time training, but we are able to practice on the court for one and a half hours per day. We aren't back to full throttle yet and only a limited number of players are back. It's definitely better than nothing and I'm really delighted to be back on the court again.
DSD: Were you a little bit rusty when you returned to the court?
Viktor Axelsen: I was definitely a little bit rusty. We're taking things slowly at the moment so that we can avoid any serious injuries.
DSD: You missed a large part of last season due to a persistent leg problem, Viktor, you didn't seem to be bothered by it much at the start of this season before the break due to the pandemic - but do you feel like this second break will benefit you in the long run?
Viktor Axelsen: It's hard to say. I want to use this period as an opportunity to practice hard and get back stronger. I'm just trying to focus on things that are under my control, the current situation is something which is out of my hands. I'm just trying to adapt the best way I can and hopefully, this break will benefit me when we return to competitive badminton.
DSD: I'm sure you were looking forward to the Olympic Games this year and adding to the bronze medal you won in Rio 4 years ago. That's now been pushed to 2021 and we now know that even the qualifying process will only resume next year. Are you happy with these decisions?
Viktor Axelsen: It's a real shame that the games had to be postponed. Ideally, the 2020 Olympics should have taken place in 2020. However, it was the right thing to postpone the event, the crisis is far from over and there was no other option available. At this point, I'm just using all my energy to prepare for the 2021 Olympics. There's still a year to go for the games and there will be a number of tournaments before the showpiece event. Currently, I am working on getting back into shape so that I'm ready for tournaments when things get up and running.
DSD: Does a mega-event like the Olympics need special preparation, some of the Indian players take a couple of months off to specifically train for the games, do you follow something similar?
Viktor Axelsen: I haven't really made any concrete plans for my Olympic preparation yet because I'm not sure about the calendar and which events I will play in 2021. The BWF has released the qualifying regulations, so now I will sit down with my coach and decide which tournaments I will play and plan my travel accordingly.
DSD: It is really going to be tough for players going forward because we are likely to see a trial and error method is adopted by the BFW on how to deal with the pandemic.
Viktor Axelsen: This is an unprecedented crisis and something we weren't prepared for. It's a tough situation for all the stakeholders of the game, the players and the various organisations. The only thing we can do is try to make the best out of this situation. It's definitely going to be a huge challenge for everyone.
DSD: We also know that the big-ticket badminton tournaments this year will resume in September this year and continue pretty much non-stop till December, so I'm curious to know what you make of the new schedule put out by the BWF?
Viktor Axelsen: I think it is an extremely ambitious plan. 22 tournaments have been planned in such a short span of time, the players will have to be very cautious since the risk of getting injured will be high. I hope players put a lot of thought before planning their schedule because playing too many back-to-back tournaments is really tough on the body. I don't know what the right thing to do is but I know that I have to be very careful with my body.
DSD: A lot of Indian players voiced their concerns over the calendar, but ultimately the players will have to make a choice, especially those who are looking to climb the ladder in the race for the Tokyo Olympics, so they will try to play as many tournaments as possible, it's going to be a tough choice to make.
Viktor Axelsen: It is going to be very tough for the players. In this situation, there are no right or wrong answers. I realise that the shutdown has a lot of financial implications for the BWF and they need to get the money pumping in again. I just hope there are rules in place so that players are not pushed to play all tournaments. The athletes' health should be the priority, if players play 10 tournaments in 12 weeks then their health will be put in danger. So it is really important that the players are protected in this situation.
DSD: The other concern is about travelling restrictions and quarantine laws that are in place around the world. To play at the top level you need clarity of thought and many have told me that the issue of safety will always be at the back of the minds.
Viktor Axelsen: I don't think it is going to be possible for players to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival to any country or when they return home, because of the packed calendar we have. Hopefully, by September, some of the international travel restrictions will be relaxed. If that isn't the case then it's going to be very difficult for players to travel for events all over the world. We have to wait and see what happens, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed.
DSD: Since badminton is an indoor sport and the 'new normal' is no fans. How will it affect players, obviously fans create quite an atmosphere and some thrive off it...
Viktor Axelsen: It's going to be a completely different experience. I haven't played a tournament without fans in a very long time. It might feel a bit like a practice session. The fans create an atmosphere which is really special. It is going to be disappointing to play without spectators but it's better than not playing at all.
DSD: Do you think all the players will accept all the compromises that will have to be made to get things rolling again.
Viktor Axelsen: It is really a case of observing how the next three months unfold and then we might have more clarity on the subject.
DSD: Among the tournaments listed is the Thomas Cup which is to take place in your home country Denmark. The event has already had to be postponed twice and you had raised concerns about the quality of the field if top teams are not able to travel. Are you optimistic about the tournament going ahead?
Viktor Axelsen: I think it's just a guessing game at this point. Many of the countries are still in lockdown and players are not being able to practice, so in my opinion, it is not a level-playing field for all players at the moment. We'll have to wait and see how the situation unfolds before taking a call.
DSD: I've had conversations with India's women's world champion PV Sindhu and some of the men's shuttlers as well over these last two months - and everyone seems to suggest it is going to take quite a bit of time for players to hit peak form and fitness again.what is your estimate?
Viktor Axelsen: We started practice about one and a half months back, so the Danish players have a bit of a headstart over the rest in terms of preparation. However, we are not really training at full throttle and only doing so for a limited period of time. It's still going to take some time for me to return to my peak but I believe I will be fit enough when the tournaments resume. There is still some time to go till the calendar restarts and it is an opportunity for me to work on certain aspects of my game. Usually, we only have a few weeks to prepare before the season begins, but in this case, we have had much more time, so the training regime is also different.
DSD: You made a pretty strong start to the season before it was halted. Winning the Spain Masters, reaching the final in Malaysia and then that tearaway triumph at the All England Open - where you dominated the draw. That was the only major title missing from your trophy cabinet - so how did it feel to finally achieve it?
Viktor Axelsen: It was a dream come true for me to win the All England Championship. I had mixed feeling when I returned home because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but it doesn't take anything away from my victory. It is really special to have the All England triumph on my CV and I'm delighted to be one of the Danish players to have won the title.
DSD: That was the last tournament before the season was halted - in fact, it was taking place while alarm bells had already started ringing in the United Kingdom regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, did you feel throughout that week that you were putting yourself in danger of getting the infection, how were you able to clear your head?
Viktor Axelsen: When i step on the court, the only thing on my mind is badminton and that was the approach I employed that week. I didn't go out much, I mostly stayed in my hotel room when I wasn't playing. I put the responsibility on the organisers and the government to take the necessary precautions and concentrated on my job, which is to play badminton.
DSD: Over the last couple of years - Japan's Kento Momota has emerged as the dominant force in the men's game - he's world No.1, won back to back World Championships. Can you talk to us about what makes him such a good player and what about his game works so well specifically against yours?
Viktor Axelsen: Kento Momota is a complete badminton player. He is probably the biggest talent in badminton right now and is also an amazing athlete. I have found him to be a very tough opponent, but in a way it's great to have someone like him because he pushes me to train and work harder every day. Hopefully, my game will continue to improve and we will have many high-level matches in the future. I will practice as hard as possible to win our next match-up.
DSD: Another very interesting thing about you, Viktor, is that you can actually speak fluently in Mandarin. It's definitely won you a lot of fans in China - but I'm curious to know what made you want to learn the language in the first place.
Viktor Axelsen: Badminton is a very popular sport in China and about 4-5 years ago, I wanted to apply my mind on something other than badminton, so I decided to learn a new language - Mandarin. I have been studying the language ever since and fortunately, I have a very good teacher. It has been a wonderful process and I have gradually improved my Mandarin speaking skills. It really has been a satisfying journey, I am now able to speak to so many people from diverse backgrounds and establish relationships with them.
DSD: You used your knowledge of Mandarin to do an Instagram live with Lee Chong Wei in March. Obviously he announced retirement this year after a decorated career. You battled him many times over the years - is he someone you looked up to as a teenager coming up through the ranks?
Viktor Axelsen: Yes, it was fun to do an Instagram with Lee Chong Wei. It was a dream come true to interact with a legend like him on social media. I think every young badminton player looked up to him, no one can deny his greatness. He was extremely consistent over many years and won a number of top titles. He is a great role model for players like me because of the way he played the game.
DSD: Finally Viktor, when the action does resume do you foresee a few up and down results before the top players start dominating again...
Viktor Axelsen: I think it's going to be tough for all players to hit the ground running. All of us are going to be a bit rusty and I believe it will take time for us to get back in the groove. None of us has been in this situation before, so it is difficult to make any prediction.