Zii Jia faces uphill task at world meet after seeing rivals flex muscles

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia was given a crystal-ball view of his adversaries at the World Championships in Huelva, Spain, in December.

And the analysis – the 23-year-old national No. 1 will have to up the ante if he eyes a medal in Spain.

Zii Jia struggled to replicate the form that secured him the All-England breakthrough in March as the two titans he defeated en route to winning the prestigious title have made big strides in their build up to the world meet.

At the just concluded Denmark Open, reigning Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen continued to flex his muscles as the best player in the world at the moment while Momota’s stunning performance proved that it’s only a matter of time before he gets back to his old form – 20 months after he was involved in a road accident.

On Sunday, Axelsen finally won his maiden Denmark Open in his 11th attempt after upstaging Momota 20-22, 21-18, 21-12 to record his first win against the Japanese since 2014.

But these amazing stats were overshadowed by their pulsating 93-minute battle which left not just the sold-out crowd at the Odense Sports Park, but also millions of others catching the action from the television screens, in awe.

The last time fans worldwide were treated to the showdown of these two badminton heavyweights was during the Malaysian Masters at the Axiata Arena in Bukit Jalil in January last year.

Momota won the duel then to extend his head-to-head record against the lanky Dane to an astonishing 14-1.

On Sunday, Momota looked to be on his way for another victory after leading 17-14 in the second game, but Axelsen, managed to turn the contest around to the delight of home supporters which included his wife Natalia and one-year-old daughter Vega.

“It feels really overwhelming. It’s a combination of being really overwhelmed and really tired,” said Axelsen, who has lost just two times in 51 matches this year, one of them to Zii Jia in the All-England final and the other to compatriot Anders Antonsen in the World Tour Finals in January.

“It was a tough one in there today. Obviously Kento is a really strong opponent. It’s good to play him again, it’s been a long time. I’m happy I managed to win.

“It was a crazy mental game, quite demanding. It goes up and down in a match like this when you play such a great player.”

Despite missing out on his third Denmark Open crown, Momota was certain now that he’s not too far away from the level he aims to return to.

“Both of us gave all we had. Emotionally, maybe, I got pushed back a lot in the third game,” said Momota.

“It’s always exciting to play him because I get to develop a lot.

“These days I haven’t been playing very well but now I feel I was able to free myself from something that was holding me back. So I think it has been a good switch for me.” Men’s singles: Viktor Axelsen (Den) bt Kento Momota (Jpn) 20-22, 21-18, 21-12.

Men’s doubles: Takuro Hoki-Yugo Kobayashi (Jpn) bt Kim Astrup-Anders Skaarup Rasmussen 21-18, 21-12.

Mixed doubles: Yuta Watanabe-Arisa Higashino (Jpn) bt Dechapol Puavaranukroh-Sapsiree Taerattanachai (Tha) 21-18, 21-9.

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