Loh and Axelsen: The origins of a badminton bromance
What started out as a training arrangement has blossomed into a great friendship and rivalry, a badminton bromance between Singapore's Loh Kean Yew and Viktor Axelsen of Denmark.
The chemistry was clear when The Straits Times met the duo for an exclusive interview, but their competitiveness can also be comedic. The interview took place at at the OCBC Arena on Tuesday (July 12), ahead of the Singapore Badminton Open.
Asked who is the better cook, world champion Loh shoots his rival a smug look and replies: "Obviously me."
When elite shuttlers rally, the returns are expectedly venomous, as top ranked and reigning Olympic champion Axelsen fired back: "He cooks only for TV or when there are cameras."
Later, when comparing whose calf is bigger, he joked about Loh rigging his measurements.
The banter is natural and constant, a sign of how their relationship has strengthened in the past 12 months following numerous training stints together in Dubai.
Axelsen tompangs (Malay for giving a lift) Loh when they are in Denmark and Dubai while his 21-month old daughter Vega now regards the Singaporean as her "favourite player other than daddy".
Loh meanwhile, has been the consummate host this past week. He sent a box of nonya kueh to Axelsen's hotel room and took his family out for a meal at Marina Bay Sands.
The Dane was here for a holiday, skipping the Singapore Open to rest after playing five tournaments across South-east Asia in two months.
Axelsen had shifted his base from Denmark to the United Arab Emirates following his victorious Tokyo 2020 campaign to facilitate travel to competitions in Asia, increase family time, and avoid having respiratory issues during the pollen season back home.
While most top players would be content to keep their secrets and strategies to themselves, the 28-year-old opened himself to his competitors by organising a training camp comprising up-and-coming talents. They would practise together in Dubai for a few weeks at a go before returning to their own set-up.
He said: "I wanted to try something else both for my motivation, but also for my own personal development.
"We have been used to the same environment, so this change from time to time is really healthy as a player, because you have to adapt, learn from the other players, and take things from everybody's game which you can use yourself.
"I'm not nervous about showing what I do on a daily basis to other players. As a player, you have to be able to find solutions on court anyway, so I see it as a big strength for all of us."
He noted his selection criteria was not just based on ability and "personality is really important also", adding: "It's important for us to have a really good environment that we can joke around and have fun practising."
The unconventional set-up appears to have paid off. Axelsen has won eight titles since the Olympics while Loh captured the world championship last December, even beating his "bro" for the first time in the first round.
Others like Indian Lakshya Sen and Canada's Brian Yang have also made breakthroughs, rising to career-high rankings.
Refusing to claim credit for their success, Axelsen said: "It's not only because of me that these players are improving. There are many years of hard work and some weeks in Dubai is not going to make a totally new player."
Nevertheless, Loh, 25, is grateful for the invitation. He has said training with Axelsen has helped him understand the consistency, focus, intensity and work ethics required to become a world-class player.
The world No. 9, who won three titles and made three other finals in the past year, said: "There's always win and lose in sports but it doesn't have to be if I lose to you, then I just hate you. It will be good for the sport if we can be fierce competitors and still be friends."
Few will probably be as chummy as these two, who during the interview began discussing whether to go skydiving together in Dubai.
There is another appointment they are even more keen on keeping, the Paris 2024 men's singles final.
"Obviously, that sounds good," they chorused. In unison, of course.