Destination Dubai: to the Viktor the spoils

Viktor Axelsen’s triumph at the 2016 Dubai World Superseries Finals cemented his reputation as a bona fide badminton star. Gruffudd Owen talks to the Dane about his golden week in Dubai, the current state of the sport and mastering Mandarin

It does not require much coaxing to get Viktor Axelsen talking about last year’s Dubai World Superseries Finals.

After all, that December week culminated in the talented young Dane celebrating one of the finest triumphs of his career to date – made all the more impressive by his struggles prior to the tournament.

“I didn’t have the best preparation leading up to the Finals,” he reminisces.

“But I think this ended up being a good thing: I was injured three weeks before the tournament, which gave me one good week of training.

“Because of the injury my expectations were low, so I came to the tournament a bit more relaxed. That might have helped me. Also, my body was well recovered.

“It was a really good tournament for me: the fact I’d reached six or seven finals before the Dubai Finals meant it was a big relief to finally win it.”

It was a really good tournament for me: the fact I’d reached six or seven finals before the Dubai Finals meant it was a big relief to finally win it

Axelsen’s immediate focus is on making sure he is back in the emirate this year to defend his crown.

Despite being on a patchy run of form – he has suffered a first-round exit in the past two Superseries events in which he has competed – the 23-year-old remains in a healthy position to qualify for the season-ending event at the Hamdan Sports Complex.

And the prospect of once again playing in front of the Dubai crowd is one that Axelsen is already getting excited about.

“The Dubai Finals is such a well-organised tournament,” he says.

“All the players I’ve spoken to really enjoy it too. The players’ lounge is amazing – as is the fact you can get really good quality food out in the hall – and the transportation is wonderful.

“The surroundings – the restaurants and the shops – are excellent as well. I always enjoy staying in Dubai and spending time there.”

Axelsen has made no secret of his desire to see the Badminton World Federation (BWF) organising other tournaments in the same mould as the Dubai Finals.

While there is some way to go before the other Superseries events match the hospitality and sense of spectacle offered at the Hamdan Sports Complex, the Dane is convinced that badminton’s governing body is on the right track.

“The BWF is getting more and more sponsors, the prize money in tournaments is growing year by year, and more tournaments are being organised,” he reveals.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of badminton: hopefully we will see the sport keep on growing. Everything points in that direction.

“When the sport is growing, the players also have to take some initiatives and promote the sport in the best possible way. I try to do that myself.”

In fact, Axelsen has gone further than most players in taking the initiative. After starting to learn the language three years ago, he is now fluent in Mandarin.

This has enabled him to communicate with his significant Chinese fanbase on social media, as well as his fellow professionals from China and Hong Kong on the circuit.

Such willingness to embrace Mandarin has boosted his popularity in the country – among both followers of the sport and prospective sponsors.  

“One of the big motivations was the fact that badminton is such a big sport in China,” he explains. 

It’s really interesting for me to use my brain outside the court, and I think learning Chinese was the right thing to do

“I hoped that from the sponsors’ perspective it would be helpful. I’ve already had some really exciting opportunities to work with Chinese companies and to do some different stuff in China.

“It’s really interesting for me to use my brain outside the court, and I think learning Chinese was the right thing to do.

“One of the big things about it is when you get to China and you want to order food, it’s really helpful. It can eliminate a lot of stress during tournaments out there.”

He may still only be 23 years of age, but such is the ephemeral nature of sport that Axelsen has already started thinking about his plans after his playing days are over.

And while he is keen to put his multilingual skills to good use in his future endeavours, his heart will always be set on a career in the sport he loves.

“Badminton is a big part of my life,” he says.

“I think I’ll always be involved in sport in some capacity. Right now I enjoy badminton, and maybe the fact that I can speak Mandarin can open some doors when I retire.

“At the moment it’s badminton and sports which interest me, so I think I’m going to stay in this field in the future as well.”