The venue is The Lalit hotel in New Delhi. It is around 3 pm in the afternoon. As he sits down for an interview with The Field, World Champion and current world No 1 Viktor Axelsen asks his manager what time is the team meeting scheduled for the Bengaluru Blasters. “6:30 pm, Viktor” comes the response. He looks at us setting up the equipment, and quips: “We might be late!” and breaks out in a cheeky laughter.
That’s who he is. Axelsen is not your regular media-shy athlete, who says the right things in front of the camera more often than saying things they actually feel. “You don’t lower the basket in basketball just because taller players are having an easier time dunking,” was his response when he was asked in a press conference about the new service rule.
Considered one of the most likeable players on the circuit, the Danish star sat down with us for an interview, during his ongoing visit to India for the Premier Badminton League. Here are the excerpts:
How does it feel to the year-end World No 1 and World Champion? Has it sunk in yet?
It feels great of course. It’s something you dream of, something you work towards. I feel great being the world No 1 but the titles are more important than the actual rank for me. So the World Championship gold is more important. I just try to stay in the moment and enjoy it, and until now that’s worked well. So I am a happy player at the moment.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a tall player?
Yeah, of course, being tall gives me an opportunity to play from a higher height, play steeper and straight smashes. But it also requires you to lunge down really deep and that’s something I have to work on. You can’t change your body, other than doing what you can to stay fit and be flexible and strong. And focus on the things I can change. It requires a lot of hard work.
Any specific techniques that you follow to help you with that?
Ohhh, I have a lot of really special techniques but I am not going to share them. (laughs)
The Indian crowds love you as one of their own. How do you feel playing in front of Indian fans?
I have been to India many times now and I have been able to do well for the past three years [playing three finals] and winning the title in my third final. I am really happy to receive that kind of support and hope that continues in the future as well. Being in the finals two times and finally managing to win the third time was a great moment for me.
How do you compare playing in India to other countries?
There are definitely differences. One of the big points is I love that the Indian fans are really loud and people are screaming, cheering. That’s one big difference compared to the European supporters for instance. The noise level is the differentiating factor for me.
How about your fan following in Denmark? Do you get mobbed by fans when you walk out on a normal day?
I think more and more people are starting to know who I am mostly because the broadcast and stuff of the World Championships was pretty good. So I get a lot of people saying ‘Hi’ when I’m walking in Denmark everyone is really friendly, so it’s good.
We’ve heard you like going out on your own when you are traveling, trying to explore cities…
I think it’s a big privilege and a great opportunity to see the world as we are travelling around. I like to spend a day or two when I have the time of course, to walk around a bit and see different sides of the cities we are playing in. I like to enjoy that.
What would you be if not a badminton player?
Umm, I’d probably be homeless. (laughs) No, I’d do some school work or trying to start my own business of some kind; I don’t know what but both my parents have had their own businesses so I’d probably have that in my blood.
What are the other sports you follow, play? Favourite players?
Not too much, to be honest. I watch a little of tennis sometimes, basketball a little bit. Not too much. I am for Odense, so I follow the OB (Odense Boldklub) soccer team. I am following them a little bit.
Roger Federer is a big inspiration, also Usain Bolt was really good. He was really tall for a sprinter as well, I think it’s the same for me. And sometimes people have doubts. I think he showed the world you can do it, even though he was a tall sprinter.
Who’s your inspiration?
Every person you meet on the way, to be honest. I don’t have one special guy who has been a mentor or an inspiration. I think it’s a mixture of your experiences and the people you surround yourself with, so I try to choose them carefully.
As a fellow competitor, how do you compare the top Indian players? From what you have played with them so far.
I know you guys really want to speak a lot about the Indian players and choose between them. But it’s really hard. I think all of them are doing really good. As I have said many times, I think it’s great to see Indian players coming up and Indian badminton growing and growing. So I respect them all and I really think it’s hard to choose.
I think they are both technically really good. Srikanth has a strong attack, Prannoy as well. Prannoy is a bit more counter-attacking while Srikanth is really deceptive. So they both have their own good points, but it’s hard to sit here and name all of them.
How has experience been with PBL?
Good experience. Last year unfortunately I wasn’t satisfied with my own game, so hopefully I can do better this time.
Players have spoken in the past about the prize money on offer in the PBL and the organisation is something BWF can learn from. Are you on board with that?
Oh definitely. I think that the Superseries finals in Dubai that we played is a great tournament and I would like to see every time we play, even though it wasn’t the case in Dubai, that we have a lot of spectators like we do here in PBL and people are really following, making some noise in the hall. And the broadcast here, and all the media is doing really good, so I’d like to see that during the BWF Tournaments as well.
It’s one of the most competitive eras in singles, do you agree? And your take on the Chinese domination declining?
I still think China is a really strong country of course. But I’d like to think it’s awesome to see so many players doing well from different countries, so I am really thrilled about that. But I am sure we will see China on the top of the world still in the years to come. Hopefully other nations and Denmark, the European and Asian countries can do well also, and it’s not just China, China, China.
What keeps you going? What does it take to remain at the top on a consistent basis?
I think it’s a matter of loving what you do. I love to play badminton, I love to travel. If you have passion for the things you are doing, then you will probably be the best version of yourself. I am doing that at the moment. Badminton, and life in general, keeps me going.