There was Japanese despair but double delight for the Chinese on finals day, while a jubilant Viktor Axelsen flew the flag for Denmark. Gruffudd Owen reports live from the Hamdan Sports Complex
You couldn’t have wished for a better final.
If Viktor Axelsen’s thrilling group stage victory against Lee Chong Wei was an early contender for match of the tournament, then his 21-14, 6-21, 21-17 men’s singles title triumph over China’s Tian Houwei at the Dubai World Superseries Finals on Sunday certainly rivals it – and will doubtless live longer in the Dane's memory.
Superior in the opening game, Axelsen’s stinging smashes and deft drop shots did not have the desired effect in the next, where a majestic Houwei was seemingly able to second-guess the cleverest, least expected and most ferocious of his opponent’s returns to coast home at 21-6 and take the match to a deciding game.
Visibly rattled, Axelsen just about kept his rival within distance for the first half of the third before regaining his composure and pulling away with both players’ scores in the high teens.
A ludicrously long rally at 17-16 to Axelsen – during which the two finalists threw everything they had at ensuring the shuttlecock continued to flit back and forth over the net – eventually went the Dane’s way; a crucial, energy-sapping point that flattened an exhausted Tian Houwei.
“The third set was a real battle of nerves. I’m really happy I came out strong at the end; it wasn’t beautiful, but it was enough,” Axelsen revealed afterwards.
This season-ending win makes up for the 22-year-old’s final defeat in the same tournament last year and caps off a memorable 2016 that also saw him claim the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Rio.
The match that followed was decidedly less competitive, with Tai Tzu Ying bolstering her status as the queen of the women’s singles by crushing Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun 21-14, 21-13 to reclaim the Finals title she first won in 2014.
The women’s doubles final earlier in the day was a more dramatic affair, where a 76-minute epic saw China’s Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan defeat the Japanese pre-match favourites Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi 21-15, 13-21, 21-17 for their first taste of Finals glory in their blossoming careers.
Despite dominating their category this year by winning gold at the Olympics and four Superseries tournaments in the regular season, the world no. 1 pairing of Matsutomo and Takahashi were oddly lethargic here.
A second game resurgence aside, they had none of the intensity or fist-bumping motivation of the Chinese, with Chen Qingchen in particularly relentless mood as she swaggered in circles around the court with every point gained.
“We knew this was going to be a tough match, because they were ranked higher than us,” her partner Jia Yifan said after accepting the Finals trophy.
“Although we played very well in the first game, they changed their tactics in the second and we were a bit slow. But we had nothing to lose in the third so I think that’s what pushed us on to victory.”
As if Chen Qingchen’s exploits in the women’s doubles weren’t already impressive, the teenager then went on to lift the mixed doubles trophy alongside her partner Zheng Siwei after dominating the defending champions Chris and Gabby Adcock in a 21-12 21-12 victory.
Her twin success means she becomes only the second person in Finals history to win two different titles in the same edition of the tournament. The 19-year-old is undoubtedly a badminton superstar in the making.
The final players to reach the top of the podium were V Shem Goh and Wee Kiong Tan of Malaysia, who inflicted a Finals day double whammy on the Japanese by defeating no. 1 seeds Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda in the men’s doubles.