Two expressions that Kunlavut Vitidsarn uses all the time are “want to learn” and “try to control”. As one of the most promising young players around, who is now toe-to-toe with the big guns, the 21-year-old still sounds like an earnest junior, not like the top 10 player he is.
Those two expressions reveal much about him. The Thai prefers the role of the underdog, and he deliberately downplays his chances. He is modesty personified, for he speaks frequently of not having anything to lose — he is “still learning”.
Yet, even as he casts himself in the role of a learner rather than a genuine contender, he did what no one else has in two years – beat Viktor Axelsen in a final, at the YONEX-SUNRISE India Open 2023.
The Dane’s last defeat in a final was at the All England in 2021. Since then, he has racked up 13 titles, including gold at the Olympics and World Championships, and with each win, the aura only grew bigger.
Vitidsarn had never taken a game off Axelsen in six previous meetings. On the eve of the India Open final, the Thai once again underplayed his chances: “Against Viktor, I have to learn first. Earlier, I’ve lost (games) for only five or six points. It’s okay, I want to learn how to play him. He’s the best, and he still can control his performance.
“I don’t think too much, I’m just focussed on control. This tournament I have to learn how to control myself. If you’re tired, you won’t be able to listen to your coach and you cannot play.”
Coming off the Malaysia Open win, Axelsen continued to be ruthlessly efficient – his semifinal against Jonatan Christie had taken just 38 minutes – but Vitisarn showed he had the nerve, the presence of mind, and the belief to challenge the No.1. It was a tight, precise performance, giving Axelsen no leeway; and when the Dane forced the pace, Vitidsarn defended brilliantly. At times he conjured up shots at the net that caught his opponent by surprise, and yet, he was smart enough not to get carried away.
Having tasted rare defeat, Axelsen doffed his hat to the winner: “I want to congratulate Vitidsarn, he played a great game… he was the better player. He is a stable player, he’s an allround player. If I’m not at my best, he’s a strong player to play against. Let’s see… I’ll be ready next time.”
Vitidsarn himself was modest about his victory, making it seem almost like a technical matter: “I didn’t think too much in the game. I’d lost six times to him. I had no pressure. I attacked a lot more. It would be hard against him in the longer rallies as that would tire me out. So I had to move fast.
“The main plan was to attack. I didn’t have any specific mindset, I thought I’d just try to play with no pressure.”
The former three-time World Junior champion has, over the last couple of years, rapidly come of age. Silver at major events like the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2021 and the BWF World Championships 2022 was indication that he was getting close to the best; his India Open triumph, over the best player in the world, showed that the Thai has finally made the big leap, from possibility to reality.