Loh Kean Yew stuns Viktor Axelsen to reach Denmark Open semi-finals
Singapore’s top shuttler Loh Kean Yew ended world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen’s men’s singles record run of 39 straight wins in stunning fashion, romping to a 21-17, 21-10 win in just 30 minutes in their Denmark Open quarter-final on Friday.
The world No. 5 told The Straits Times: “Beating Viktor now is an achievement in itself because he is on another level. But nobody wins all the time, and he is also human, and a respectable one too.”
Loh will go on and meet childhood rival, Malaysia’s third-ranked Lee Zii Jia, in their semi-final on Saturday.
The other semi-final will be contested by Japan’s world No. 24 Kodai Naraoka and China’s 44th-ranked Shi Yuqi.
Prior to Friday’s match, Axelsen had lost just once in 43 matches in 2022, when he was defeated by India’s Lakshya Sen in their German Open semi-final in March.
Since then, the 28-year-old Dane had been in near-invincible form, as he surpassed Chinese legend Lin Dan’s run of 31 consecutive wins en route to six titles, including his second World Championships and All England Open crowns. Axelsen was so dominant, he lost just seven games in his record run.
He did withdraw from the Swiss Open and Thailand Open after one win at each event, but these are disregarded when tabulating the streaks.
And so, in front of his hometown crowd at the Jyske Bank Arena in Odense, Axelsen was hot favourite to progress.
But Loh, who famously beat Axelsen in the first round of the 2021 World Championships before going all the way to become Singapore’s first badminton world champion, had other ideas.
Choosing to start from the half with the wind carry, which is generally accepted as the more disadvantageous side, the 25-year-old kept pace in the first game which was littered with shots that sailed long and out, such that Axelsen never led by more than a point.
Loh then impressed with his blinding speed that helped him retrieve his opponent’s fierce smashes, and drew gasps of appreciation even from the home fans with his brilliant net play.
When the opportunity arose, he unleashed his own ferocious smashes, with one clocked at 388 kmh.
The bromance between the two players, who started training together with other players in Dubai in September 2021 on Axelsen’s invitation before repeating the arrangement before this tournament, has been well-documented.
But there was a dash of drama during their latest encounter on two occasions when each player declined to change the shuttlecocks despite the other’s request.
Loh began the second game with a service fault, but then showcased his full array of skills - scooping shuttles from near the floor, stroking deft drop shots, and sending winners to the corners - to blitz Axelsen and record his second win over his illustrious rival in six encounters.
His delightful all-round game on the night led commentator Gillian Clark to comment: “Loh is playing so well, he is making the reigning world and Olympic champion look ordinary.”
After admitting to The Straits Times at the Commonwealth Games in England in August that he was struggling with his form and consistency, he reached the World Championships quarter-finals and was knocked out at the round of 16 at the Japan Open.
He then trained with Axelsen in Dubai and Denmark before setting the US$750,000 (S$1.06 million) Denmark Open alight with straight-game wins over Thailands’ world No. 36 Sitthikom Thammasin, India’s 11th-ranked Srikanth Kidambi, and now Axelsen.
Loh said: “I prepared well before the matches, and gave my all during them. I’m just happy to be on the winning side. The tournament is not over so I got to stay focused throughout.
“Viktor is Viktor, and Zii Jia is Zii Jia. Every player has different strengths and characteristics so I’m just going to go out there and do my best in the next match.”