Marin, Axelsen, And the Promise of a New Start

A new year, and a new start for the circuit, particularly for Carolina Marin and Viktor Axelsen.

The Spaniard had spoken of beginning the year on a clean slate, as it were, after the loss of her father last year. She had gone seven tournaments without a title; besides, there was the disruption caused to the circuit due to the pandemic.

It was time to start afresh with the YONEX Thailand Open, and like all great champions, Marin was able to translate her ambition into reality.

Gone was the tentativeness and error-ridden play that one saw at the Denmark Open last October. Instead, there was assertiveness, a spring in her steps and the infallibility of her confidence, and of course, her stock assets – speed, power, precision.

This could have been a tricky draw for the Spaniard, but she aced it in style. After a first-round win over Qi Xuefei, she faced four opponents – all of whom have beaten her at least once. In the second round was Pornpawee Chochuwong, who’d surprisingly got the better of her on her home turf last February; her quarterfinal opponent was Supanida Katethong, to whom she’d stumbled during her comeback tournament in Vietnam in September 2019, and her semifinal was against An Se Young, her vanquisher at the French Open the following month. The final was versus Tai Tzu Ying, who held a 9-6 career record against her.

It was An Se Young that provided her the most searching questions during the week. The Korean fed off Marin’s pace and power, leading to shaky moments from the Spaniard late in the first game, but with the slightest of An Se Young’s fumbles, Marin sped away.

“I wasn’t good with myself, because my father passed away a few months ago,” said Marin, recalling the previous season.

“But two months ago I started again, I tried to keep talking with my team, my trainer, my psychologist, about what I really want, and for these three tournaments I wanted to enjoy again, because I really missed competition and just tried to do what I have trained for.

“I think sometimes you just need to earn some confidence with yourself. Also, the one thing that I just wanted to do here is to just try to enjoy, to be on court and to play some good games… I feel really happy that I could change my mind from last year; I had a difficult year personally in 2020, but I recovered well and my mind should decide what I want for the future, whether it’s the Olympics or World Championships.”

As for Axelsen, this was his first tournament after his All England win. Since then he’d had ankle surgery, which forced him to skip the Denmark Open at home, and the birth of his daughter. His victory here was perhaps expected, but for Axelsen the validation was important considering that he’d been out of competition since March 2020.

“Having not played for so long, I’m really happy that I managed to win this match,” said Axelsen.

“I was a little bit in a weird situation coming into this tournament, many things have happened since I played last. Surgery to my ankle, birth of our daughter, so I’ve been training as hard as I could, but I really didn’t know where I was, playing-wise. So I’m proud and happy that I managed to win this tournament, because it’s not easy against such good opponents.”

And so, as the first tournament of a new-look season ended successfully, the badminton world can look ahead with excitement at the two remaining events in the Asian Leg and the rest of the season.

The protocols under which the Asian Leg is being held herald the new normal for the foreseeable future. The safety measures were comprehensive and extended on to on-court gestures, such as avoiding the customary handshake, and into the prize presentation.

A few of the players had initially voiced their reservations regarding practice time and food during quarantine, but over the course of the week all of them had grown increasingly supportive of the need for strict measures.

Two of the winners, Marin and Greysia Polii, remembered to thank organisers after they had won their titles.

“Thank you very much to BWF and to Thailand and all the organisers,” said Olympic champion Marin. “Thanks to them we could start to play tournaments in this difficult time,” while Polii voiced a note of optimism for the future, hoping that the worst of the pandemic would be behind us soon.

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