A transition from the hot weather in Malaysia to New Delhi’s freezing cold? No problem, Viktor Axelsen defeated local favourite Kidambi Srikanth in straight games. Slower shuttles? No problem again; he had adapted to it by the time of the second round, defeating China’s Shi Yuqi. An unfortunate injury to compatriot Rasmus Gemke meant Axelsen did enter the semi-finals with top-notch energy – something he admitted in the post-match interaction with reporters too. Result? A 21-6, 21-12 win against world no.4 Jonatan Christie.
It isn’t as if Viktor Axelsen is unbeatable. But the rarity of his losses almost makes him seem like a machine manufactured to lift every badminton title under the sun.
And that’s exactly why a 21-year-old Kunlavut Vitidsarn remains in hunt for the biggest victory of his career so far, as he takes on the Danish World No.1 in the final of India Open on Sunday. A victory for any of the two would be one-of-its-kind; this is the first India Open edition after it was upgraded to Super 750 by the Badminton World Federation (BWF).
Axelsen has won the title twice in his career so far, while Vitidsarn is yet to beat the Danish shuttler in five meetings so far.
The indomitable Viktor
Axelsen’s alarming consistency over the past few months has left the top shuttlers across the world in awe. “He is very confident. He is very good mentally,” Jonatan Christie said after he faced a straight-game defeat to Axelsen in the semi-finals on Saturday.
The Danish world no.1 shuttler won 8 titles last year including the World Championships and the All England title. He faced only three defeats throughout the entire year; twice to Indians. Lakshya Sen had beaten him at the German Open, while HS Prannoy edged past Axelsen in the BWF World Tour Finals.
At the India Open, despite a fairly straightforward 21-14, 21-19 win over Srikanth in the first round, Axelsen had admitted that it was a tough outing for him. “The shuttles are a little bit slow (in India Open). Coming from a hot and humid country like Malaysia to here, where it is very cold, is hard to adapt. I’m just trying to settle in and I’m really happy I have won in straight games here. Srikanth is a tricky opponent, so I’m satisfied overall,” Axelsen had said following the win.
Also read: Viktor Axelsen lauds ‘tricky opponent’ Srikanth after first round win at India Open
He had dropped only his second game this year during a second-round clash against China’s Shi Yuqi but eventually prevailed in a match that lasted 63 minutes on Thursday. After dropping the second game, Axelsen had made a blistering comeback, producing an exhibition in stunning pick-up-and-kill shots combination. And that remains the highlight of Axelsen’s gameplay; the 29-year-old shuttler makes excellent use of his height and doesn’t exert in his pick-up shots, allowing him to return to the centre of the court well in time for the smash.
In the quarterfinals, Axelsen had been cruising against fellow countryman Gemke before the injury to the latter eventually confirmed Axelsen’s place in the semis. On the contrary, Jonatan Christie had played a three-game marathon against Chou Tien Chen of China late Friday, and clearly looked exhausted early into the semi-final as Axelsen cruised to his second final of the year in as many tournaments.
Huge opportunity for Vitidsarn
The 21-year-old Thailand shuttler has a chance to do something his fellow 2018 junior batchmate Kodai Naraoka couldn’t in Malaysia last week; defeat Axelsen to lift a maiden 750 title.
Vitidsarn had made a fairly dominant start with a 21-13, 21-13 victory over Hong Kong’s Angus Ng Ka-Long before defeating Denmark’s Anders Antonsen in a three-game thriller on Thursday. His best performance, however, came in the quarters against Loh Kean Yew; Vitidsarn had been trailing 7-11 in the first game but produced a remarkable comeback, taking 12 successive points before taking away the game.
He eventually won 21-12, 21-17 before setting up a semi-final clash against Thailand’s star shuttler Antony Ginting. It was again a marathon first game that saw a see-sawing of points. At 26-25, a net error from Ginting eventually handed the game to Vitidsarn, who then defied a comeback from the Indonesian shuttler to seal the tie.
After the first round win, Vitidsarn was asked whether Axelsen was unbeatable as the player pressed on various topics in a lengthy mixed zone interaction. At the time, the youngster stated that he isn’t too focussed on result when it comes to facing the World No.1 shuttler.
“Well, it’s very hard for me and other players but I have to try everything and it is okay if I lose, I want to learn,” Vitidsarn had said.
Axelsen is undefeated in five ties against Vitidsarn so far. In fact, Vitidsarn is yet to take a game against Danish no.1. Their latest meeting was in October last year where Axelsen had won 21-16, 21-8.
Fans rally behind Axelsen
Fans queued up well in advance for the star-studded semi-final between Axelsen and Christie, and as soon as the Danish shuttler entered the arena, he was greeted with resounding chants of ‘Viktor bhaiya, Viktor bhaiya!’. There were banners, and there were Indianized chants from fans throughout the competition for Axelsen and it hasn’t gone unnoticed from the world no.1.
“I really want to thank the Indian badminton fans for their support today. To see badminton growing here is really good. Thank you so much for support, and I’m looking forward to come back in the years to come as well,” Axelsen had said following the win against Christie.
Chelsea sign Enzo Fernandez for British record fee; Sabitzer joins Man Utd | Football News
Chelsea has already spent more in the January transfer window — around $225 million — than every club in the top leagues in Spain, Italy, Germany and France combined.
They have now completed the British record 105 million pounds ($129.18 million) signing of Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernandez, Portuguese club Benfica confirmed on Wednesday.
After a day of negotiations between the two clubs, Premier League team Chelsea reached agreement to pay the release fee for the 22-year-old Argentina World Cup winner.
The fee eclipses the 100 million pounds Manchester City paid Aston Villa for England midfielder Jack Grealish in 2021.
This comes after Chelsea spent around $280 million in Europe’s summer transfer window, the first under the new ownership fronted by Todd Boehly following the purchase of the club for $2.5 billion in May.
Chelsea has handed new players long contracts — as much as 8 1/2 years for Mudryk, for example — to allow the club to spread the cost of the signings over the length of the deal and comply with financial fair-play regulations.
Fernandez only joined Benfica from Argentine club River Plate in August, for a reported fee of around $10 million.
Chelsea will hope its latest spending spree helps the team climb the Premier League standings — it is currently in 10th place, 10 points off the top four — in a late attempt to qualify for the Champions League.
JORGINHO TO ARSENAL
Italy international Jorginho has cost Arsenal a reported 12 million pounds ($14.75 million) in a move that gives the league leaders an extra option in midfield in their bid to win a first top-flight title since 2004.
Arsenal made a late move in the transfer window to strengthen its central-midfield department, with Mohamed Elneny — a backup to first-choice holding midfielder Thomas Partey — ruled out for a lengthy period Tuesday because of injury.
Attempts to sign Ecuador international Moises Caideco from Brighton were rebuffed last week, leading Arsenal to turn to Jorginho, who helped Italy win the European Championship in 2021.
He spent 4 1/2 years at Chelsea after joining from Napoli and was no longer a regular player at Chelsea under manager Graham Potter.
Arsenal also loaned out midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga to Crystal Palace and 19-year-old Brazilian forward Marquinhos, who is midway through his first season at the club, to second-tier Norwich to get more first-team action.
CANCELO LEAVES CITY
Manchester City sent Joao Cancelo on loan to Bayern Munich for the rest of the season, with the Portugal fullback having fallen out of favor with manager Pep Guardiola since the World Cup.
The German champions have the option to make the transfer permanent for a fee of 70 million euros ($76 million).
Cancelo was one of City’s key players last season but Guardiola feels the team can do without the attacking, versatile defender after a recent tactical switch and the emergence of 18-year-old right back Rico Lewis.
TOTTENHAM’S RIGHT BACKS
Tottenham manager Antonio Conte places a lot of importance in his wing backs and the club switched around the players on the right side on deadline day.
Spain wing back Pedro Porro joined from Sporting in Portugal on loan, with Tottenham obliged to buy him for a reported 39 million pounds ($48 million) at the end of the season. To make room in the squad, Tottenham sent Djed Spence on loan to Rennes in France and mutually agreed to the termination of Matt Doherty’s contract to enable him to join Atletico Madrid in Spain.
SABITZER TO UNITED
Manchester United completed the loan signing of midfielder Marcel Sabitzer from Bayern Munich as cover for the injured Christian Eriksen on Tuesday.
Eriksen could miss most of the remainder of the season because of an ankle injury, sustained during United’s 3-1 win against Reading in the FA Cup on Saturday.
That prompted the Premier League club to look for midfield reinforcements before the January window closed, with Sabitzer flying in from Germany to sign a deal until the end of the season.
“Sometimes in life you have to make quick and important decisions,” Sabitzer said. “From the moment I heard about this opportunity I knew it was right for me. I am a competitive player; I want to win and help the club achieve its aims this season.”
FOREST AND BOURNEMOUTH ACTIVE
Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth were busy bolstering their squads for their bids to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
Forest brought in three players — the signature signing being Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas on loan from Paris Saint-Germain for the rest of the season. Felipe, a 33-year-old Brazilian central defender, arrived from Atletico and midfielder Jonjo Shelvey came from Newcastle.
Bournemouth signed Dynamo Kyiv defender Illia Zabarnyi, who is highly rated having won 24 caps for Ukraine by the age of 20, and Ivory Coast midfielder Hamed Traorè from Italian team Sassuolo on an initial loan agreement which will become permanent at the end of the season for a further five years.
Leeds signed center back Diogo Monteiro, who has been a captain of Portugal’s youth teams, from Swiss team Servette while Australia defender Harry Souttar, who impressed at the World Cup, joined Leicester from second-tier Stoke.
Hockey: Hits and misses of the Graham Reid era | Hockey
For a coach who guided the Indian men’s hockey team to its greatest glory in more than four decades, Graham Reid has had quite an unceremonious exit. From that famed August 2021 afternoon in Tokyo to the disheartening January 2022 evening in Bhubaneswar, the Australian’s career as India chief coach spiraled out of control. Very quickly.
One might even say it’s normal in sport, especially team sport. When a team fails to deliver, the finger is almost invariably pointed towards the coach. Reid’s case was no different as the 58-year-old leaves the setup he joined in April 2019. But not before leaving his mark.
Perhaps Reid’s greatest success was keeping the Indian team together during the lockdown period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shut inside the SAI campus in Bengaluru for months with several of them contracting the virus, Reid did a tremendous job in keeping the unit motivated, confident and energetic. He made the team meet, discuss, hang out together to keep them mentally fresh.
“Fortitude was one of Reid’s main virtues. He involved all players in discussions, took their opinions, even during analytical meetings. He made everyone part of the core group, selected player or not,” said someone in the know of things.
The results were proof enough. While other top teams faltered, India played well in both the Pro League and the Olympics. “You have to give him credit for one thing – he always heard what players had to say,” said a player who belongs to the core probables.
From time-to-time, Reid also brought in experts to work with the team to better their skills. Dutch drag-flick legend Bram Lomans and goalkeeper trainer Dennis van de Pol are two recent examples who not just trained the Indian players online during Covid, but also made their way to India before the World Cup to help players understand the nuances of the game better. Van de Pol was in fact goalkeeping coach for the team during the World Cup.
Reid gave utmost importance to fitness. For him, higher levels of fitness meant better performances during tournaments, leading to a drastic improvement in the fitness levels of the team. The chemistry of Reid and scientific advisor Robin Arkell worked well with the two introducing innovative and data-based techniques which got players hooked to numbers, increasing competition within the core group to improve fitness levels.
From the ‘red’ and ‘green’ sessions to GPS pods used to track the distance and speeds of players while training, Reid and Arkell feverishly compiled data and used it to inform players what they needed to do to become fitter.
But letting go of Arkell, who left after the Tokyo Olympics, was a big error. The fitness levels the players reached during Arkell’s tenure were never matched by his successor Mitchell Pemberton. It has been learned that several players were unhappy with Pemberton.
“Robin was different. He took it as a personal responsibility. He used to notice everyone on the field, go to players’ rooms individually to tell them what they needed to do or what they were doing wrong. That was never the case with Mitchell,” said a player on condition of anonymity.
While Pemberton’s boys crashed out in the crossovers after losing to New Zealand, Arkell – now the strength and conditioning coach of Germany — helped the Germans win the World Cup on Sunday. It has been learned that while Arkell would take yo-yo tests when the camps started and ended to tell players how they have performed during that period, no yo-yo tests were held during camps post the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
A major issue, which is not the responsibility of Reid alone, was the period of celebration for the Indian team post the Olympics. The team’s hunger was clearly visible during the 2020-21 Pro League and Tokyo Olympics when they beat the best in the world. But after Tokyo, a sense of complacency set in and it showed in the results too. The team returned to the turf with very average performances.
The team perhaps also needed a mental conditioning coach and goalkeeping coach. While van de Pol was brought in for the World Cup, that is too short a period to improve the skill levels of keepers. Most top teams in the world have separate goalkeeping coaches. That’s true for sports psychologists too. Whether it was due to Covid-19 or some other reason, Reid never got the federation to hire a mental conditioning coach. Hockey India has recently said that they will look into hiring one.
Reid is also a believer in youth, often backing the inexperienced than the seasoned. The penalty shootout against New Zealand being the latest example. But unlike earlier, he did not introduce any player from India’s 2021 Junior World Cup team into the 2023 World Cup squad. The only one who made the cut was Vivek Sagar Prasad, who is already an Olympic medallist.
At the 2018 World Cup, there were seven players from the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning squad who were groomed to make the cut, including current India captain Harmanpreet Singh. The players formed the backbone of the team that won bronze in Tokyo.
HI invites applications
A day after Reid announced his resignation, Hockey India (HI) have advertised for the appointment of three positions – chief coach, analytical coach and scientific advisor – the three positions vacated by Reid, Gregg Clark and Mitchell Pemberton. The contracts will run till December 31, 2024 with the roles having the primary role of guiding the Indian team through the 2023 Asian Games in September-October and the 2024 Paris Olympics. The final date of applying for all three positions is February 15.
Quite a few names are doing the rounds in the hockey circles. Former India coach Roelant Oltmans, Spain coach Max Caldas, former India and current United States coach Harendra Singh along with Pakistan coach Siegfried Aikman are of the names. All four, among other names, were seen in the World Cup.
Uneasy build-up for India’s wrestlers ahead of season opener
In an ideal world, the likes of Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dahiya, and Vinesh Phogat would have been in Croatia, hitting the mat for the season-opening Zagreb ranking series. These, however, are far from ideal times for Indian wrestling. The unprecedented protests from the country’s top wrestlers have not only led to the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president stepping aside, but it has also meant that none of the protesting wrestlers were in any form or shape to compete in Zagreb.
This, inadvertently, puts the spotlight on the second rung that will be eager to make an impression on the international stage. It won’t be an easy ride though considering the level of competition as well as the tense build-up to the tournament.
“It won’t be easy, for sure. We didn’t stop their practice for a single day but whatever goes on the outside does impact the youngsters,” said Parveen Singh Dahiya, coach of young Aman Sehrawat who will represent India in the 57kg freestyle category. “Aman is a very mature wrestler and he tries to keep himself occupied with wrestling, but it is impossible to not get affected by the protests. This has not been a perfect build-up, far from it,” he said.
Still only 19, Aman is increasingly seen as the next big hope in his weight class. The two-time defending national champion became the first Indian to win gold at the U-23 world championships last year, and coaches at the famed Chhatrasal Stadium — where he trains — believe that by the time the next Olympic cycle commences, the shy grappler from Haryana’s Birohar village will be physically and technically ready to stake his claim.
“Our wrestlers haven’t had any international competition in a while. Most haven’t competed since the Commonwealth Games. So, it would have been a great opportunity for everyone to start their season, but I am sure every youngster views it as a stage to shine in the absence of big names,” the coach added.
While Aman couldn’t make the team for last year’s World Championships after going down to Rahul Aware in the trials, the man who did eventually steamroll Aware to walk away with a Worlds berth — Pankaj Malik — will be India’s flagbearer in the 61kg division. Already 26, time may be running out for Pankaj who finds himself sandwiched between two of Indian wrestling’s biggest stars, Ravi Dahiya (57kg) and Bajrang (65kg).
“Cutting weight is not an option for him, and if he has to challenge someone like Bajrang, he needs to grab every chance he gets. In that sense, this ranking series is huge for him,” Pankaj’s coach Jaiveer said.
Pankaj ended the year with a comfortable gold at the Nationals, and with no Ravi in the fray in Zagreb — who had entered in the non-Olympic 61kg division — the Indian Air Force sergeant may finally have his chance to soar.
“He has trained really hard, despite the disturbances,” Jaiveer said, referring to the wrestlers’ protest. “Pankaj, like most wrestlers, was shocked and stunned to see Bajrang, Vinesh and the rest holding that press conference. Mentally, not ideal but technically, we have left no stone unturned to make this opportunity count.”
Veteran coach Kuldeep Singh concurs that the unavailability of seasoned wrestlers is a blessing in disguise for young hopefuls. “Having said that, I am not expecting a big haul in Zagreb. These youngsters never stopped training, but one can only guess their state of mind given the ongoing fracas. It would have certainly dented their morale,” Singh added.
Meanwhile, there will be no Indian representation in the freestyle 65kg, 74kg, and 86kg classes as the visa for Sujeet, Sagar Jaglan, and Vicky respectively could not be processed on time. Even the ones who could board the flight were asked to rush to the airport on Monday evening where their tickets and visa were waiting.
The team is expected to land in Zagreb on Tuesday evening, while competition in freestyle and women’s divisions begins on Wednesday.
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