Choong Hann believes Dane’s rivals extra motivated to stop him and claim lucrative prize

Practice makes perfect: Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen at a training session in Bukit Jalil. — S.S.KANESAN/The Star

Viktor Axelsen will again be the man to beat but national singles coaching director Wong Choong Hann believes the Dane will not have it easy at the Malaysian Open beginning today.

The tournament, which has been elevated to a Super 1000 category with a total prize money of US$1.25mil (RM5.547mil), will see the men’s singles winner taking home a whopping US$87,500 (RM388,290).

That alone will be the extra motivation for his rivals to end the Dane’s title defence.

“Viktor is of course the favourite but we cannot discount the ability of the other top 10 players including world No. 2 Lee Zii Jia. I think it will be difficult for Viktor to reach the final,” said Choong Hann.

“China’s Shi Yuqi, Thailand’s Kunlavut (Vitidsarn) and Indonesian players (Anthony Ginting and Jonatan Christie) are among the possible threats. Any one of them is capable of causing upsets.”

Even Axelsen is aware of the looming threat.

“There are so many talented and good players in this category, if you’re not focused you can easily face problems early. The pressure is a privilege but it also means that I am in a position that I have done well.

“I will let others decide who is the favourite. For me, I will just focus on my match.”

Zii Jia is expected to pull through against Kodai Naraoka, who has not had the best of form, in the first round before setting up a clash against compatriot Ng Tze Yong.

The Zii Jia-Tze Yong encounter should be a treat for home fans with Choong Hann saying that Tze Yong has been putting mature performances of late.

Tze Yong’s best run in a tournament was at the Commonwealth Games where he secured the silver medal and that is the kind of form Choong Hann believes the 22-year-old shuttler must reproduce at the Axiata Arena.

“I believe Tze Yong has the chance to do well. But he must have belief that he can produce the results,” added Choong Hann.

“He has been playing better against top 20 players and he has to continue doing that.”

Axelsen will have a tricky first-round encounter against compatriot Rasmus Gemke but the Olympics champion should not have problems moving into the next round.

Independent player Liew Daren will take on France’s rising star, Toma Junior Popov, in the first round.

In women’s singles, Goh Jin Wei is the only Malaysian in action and will open her campaign against Germany’s Yvonne Li.

Victory will pit Jin Wei against South Korean second seed An Se-young in Thursday’s second round.

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