The enticing prospect of a Kento Momota versus Viktor Axelsen showdown is in the air as the 111th edition of the world’s oldest tournament, the YONEX All England Open Badminton Championships 2021, begins this week.
The Momota-Axelsen rivalry has been dominated by the Japanese who has a 14-1 record, but if they do clash this year, the terms of the engagement will be different. Momota hasn’t played an international match since winning the PERODUA Malaysia Masters in January 2020 – over a year ago. Injury to his eye socket sustained during a traffic accident necessitated surgery. Momota was then due to play the Asian Leg in January 2021 but contracted COVID-19 and that put him out of action for a few more weeks.
Axelsen, in the meantime, went from strength to strength. He won his first All England – becoming the first Dane in two decades to win the men’s singles title. Despite a minor ankle surgery that forced him to skip the DANISA Denmark Open last October, Axelsen has been nearly unstoppable so far in 2021 – winning 23 of his last 24 matches and capturing the YONEX Thailand Open, the TOYOTA Thailand Open, and the YONEX Swiss Open.
What has been particularly impressive is his decimation of top 10 players. During the Asian Leg he dropped only one game in 14 matches before his loss to Anders Antonsen in the title round of the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals. Axelsen appears more defensively solid and more consistent now than in the recent past, and it will be up to his challengers to raise their game if they hope to beat him.
If they do meet, will Momota’s game be sharp enough to thwart the improved Axelsen?
A final between Axelsen and Momota is far from certain, of course. Momota has to contend with Parupalli Kashyap first, and then possibly HS Prannoy, Lee Zii Jia or Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting or Kidambi Srikanth. If he does make the final despite this field, it will be a tribute to his abilities to shut out setbacks in his quest for excellence.
Axelsen himself might have to contend with his compatriot Anders Antonsen, the only player to beat him this year. Antonsen, having won two of his last four major events, will look to win his first All England.
The All England also presents an opportunity for players like Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, Lee Zii Jia and Kidambi Srikanth to rediscover their best form. Ginting was inconsistent in Bangkok, while Lee Zii Jia was totally off-colour. The memories of last year’s All England, where he nearly beat Axelsen in the semifinals, might prove to be the tonic he needs.
Carolina Marin Withdraws
In women’s singles, top seed Carolina Marin pulled out citing an injury she suffered at the YONEX Swiss Open; her withdrawal opens up the top half of the draw for third seed Akane Yamaguchi, Beiwen Zhang, Pornpawee Chochuwong and Pusarla V Sindhu. Yamaguchi’s last international event was at this event last year, and it will be interesting to see if the Japanese can find her former level this week. Her compatriot, Nozomi Okuhara, heads the lower half of the draw and will look to make the quarterfinals, where she is likely to run into Ratchanok Intanon or Mia Blichfeldt.
Stars in Action: Kento Momota, Viktor Axelsen, Anders Antonsen, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, Nozomi Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi, Ratchanok Intanon, Mia Blichfeldt, Pusarla V Sindhu
Keep an Eye On: Rasmus Gemke, Kunlavut Vitidsarn, Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, Pornpawee Chochuwong, Line Christophersen