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2016 Thomas Cup: The forgotten unforgettable moment

10/14/2021 4:04 PM |  BadmintonEurope.com |  Alan Raftery
-To be honest, that exact moment where I win, the last few rallies, I completely blacked out and I do not remember anything afterwards… 

These are the words of Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus about one of the biggest moments in his career and the history of Danish badminton. The man was at the heart of this historic achievement – lifting the Thomas Cup for the first time.  

Together we retraced the steps taken on the journey and piece by piece we understand how such a feat was achieved through the eyes of the player who hit that final winning shot.  

The 2016 Thomas & Uber Cup was the 29th tournament of the Thomas Cup, effectively the world team championships for men. It was held in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, China. 

Denmark was coming into the tournament as number two seeds, so on paper, they were in the mix. However, Vittinghus points out that the seeding is misleading. Being based on world ranking individually, Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen were ranked highly in men’s doubles. However, only Boe was in the team due to Carsten’s unfortunate brain aneurism earlier in the year.  

-We did not see ourselves as one of the favourites to win. We knew we had a team that was capable of having a chance against most teams. For example, China [top seeds] would have been an impossible task for us.  

-We went in with the realistic goal of winning a medal. We knew that with our seeding the draw could be good for us if we won our group.  

The Chinese Taipei catapult 
In Group D, Denmark breezed through their opening matches against South Africa and New Zealand. Thankfully it was not in Rugby but in Badminton, which left essentially a playoff match with Chinese Taipei to determine who tops the group.  

With excellent wins from Viktor Axelsen, Mads Conrad-Petersen / Mads Pieler Kolding and Mathias Boe / Mathias Christiansen, by the time Vittinghus took to the court the match was won. However, instead of taking it easy and rest for the knockout stages, he went all out against Wang Tzu Wei. Why?  

-I spoke to Kenneth Jonassen who was the men’s singles coach at the time about how to approach the match and that I should try and play 100 per cent. At the time I was in great shape, so physicality wasn’t really a concern. In the first two group matches we played South Africa and New Zealand, and without being disrespectful to them, playing third singles against them is not the same as against Chinese Taipei or the countries we were to play in the later stages. So, it was important to play someone top 25 in the world to see where I was in terms of my condition and to see if there are things I need to adjust for the knockout stages. It was an important match for me to get into the real flow and rhythm of playing these top guys.  

Wang just took the match in the decider, 25-23.  

-It was actually really good for me to be on court and have to play a decider going to settings, playing for the important points because I was already going to experience that the next day in the quarterfinal against Japan and I am happy we chose to do it that way.  

A monkey off my back 
Into the knockout stages, Denmark faced the reigning champions Japan. The match was poised at 2-2 with Vittinghus going up against Riichi Takeshita. 

-I was confident going into the match as I was the higher-ranked player, but I also had a lot of respect for the situation. At 2-2 in a Thomas Cup knockout tie, it’s something special, and you often see the lower-ranked opponent turn out to be the winner in the end. For me personally, that match was the most important of that Thomas Cup. It kind of knocked a monkey off my back because I have played the Thomas Cup so many times, and I have never performed at the level I wanted to for various reasons – sickness, injury or pulling out of the squad late. So, it was very important for me to finally have that win to show that I made a difference for the team. It meant a lot to me and after that, I played a lot more freely in both the semifinal and the final as well.  

Vittinghus battled hard and won 23-21, 21-17, and admits that perhaps he was a little swept up by the occasion despite getting the job done.  

-I was a little too eager to win because I wanted to prove so much that I deserve to be there.  

This was on court 4, meanwhile, on court 1, hosts and favourites China was being knocked out by Korea. This development did not go unnoticed, and it changed everything.  

-Actually, at the end of my match, we felt that the entire stadium was supporting me and Denmark. The crowd were so annoyed with the Chinese team that was already losing, and we had a great atmosphere and for some reason we got the Chinese fans to cheer for us in the quarterfinal. It carried on from there, they cheered for us for the rest of the tournament.  

Dealing with pressure 
In the semifinal against a star-studded Malaysian team led by Lee Chong Wei, they quickly found themselves 2-0 down. Vittinghus played second men’s singles this time, although the feeling was the same as before – it’s a must-win. The pressure seemed to be high, but Vittinghus actually saw it slightly differently.  

-Yes for sure there was pressure, but I think it can work both ways actually. You so badly want to perform, not just for yourself but also for your teammates. The advantage for me against Iskandar [Iskandar Zulkarnain Zainuddin] was that I actually felt that the pressure was off. I know I needed to win to keep up in the tie, but we always felt if they got a 2-0 lead they would be the favourite to win. We knew we had a chance, but we actually saw Malaysia as the likely winner in the remaining matches. We probably needed one of the first two matches to have a real good chance. But we also knew that I could win that match and if I could win it in a way where I showed a lot of energy and emotion, conveying to the team that we still had a chance. It could be like a momentum change.  

Opponent insights 
Badminton, particularly in high-pressure environments like this, can be a psychological game. Vittinghus knows this well and also knew that if he can get win in a certain way, it could derail the Malaysian train.  

-We also knew that the Malaysian mentality is that when it is going well, they get better and better and can be almost unbeatable. However, when things turn the other way around things can go down at quite a steep angle. I think that is what happened to them after they lost that one match. They started feeling the pressure and began thinking how they are not supposed to lose this match now. We held a mental edge over them in the final two matches and I think that’s what decided it in the end.  

He was not wrong. Vittinghus won his match, 21-18, 21-18. This was followed by a sensational three-game win by Kim Astrup/ Anders Skaarup Rasmussen over Koo Kian Keat/ Tan Boon Heong, topped off by Emil Holst holding his nerve against Chong Wei Feng.  

The final 

Denmark vs Indonesia 

The badminton-loving nation of Indonesia has a great pedigree in the Thomas Cup, having the most wins out of any country (13). However, they have not won since 2002 and desperately wanted the title.   

-We went into the match thinking that we had a really fair chance of winning, perhaps more of a 50-50 match. We were expecting that they would put Jonatan Christie in the line-up, which would have meant that Ginting would play me as third singles, a more even matchup. So, we were a little surprised when Christie did not feature.  

-We knew that we would have to probably win all of the singles matches to win, but if it comes down to 2-2 in a Thomas Cup final and given our history with zero golds and eight silver medals and Indonesia’s rich history, we did not take anything for granted.  

Both Denmark and Indonesia took it in turns to score dominant wins for their team. Viktor Axelsen got his team off the mark with a win over Tommy Sugiarto, only for the experienced Mohammad Ahsan/ Hendra Setiawan to level it with a win over Mads Conrad-Petersen / Mads Pieler Kolding.  

Jan Ø Jørgensen retook the lead with a clinical win over Anthony Ginting. Indonesia, with their traditionally strong doubles, this time Angga Pratama / Ricky Karanda Suwardi levelled the scoreline once again against Kim Astrup / Anders Skaarup Rasmussen.  

Meaning only one thing – it was ‘Vittinghus time’.  

Up against the young talent, Ihsan Maulana Mustofa, the opportunity to make history lay before the Dane.  

-The way the match started it was clear that it was going to be a mental battle more than anything else. I felt a huge shift in the match right after the first interval. I was 11-10 up, so it was quite even, neither of us played amazing at that time, we were kind of feeling each other’s game.  

Vittinghus sensed some vulnerability on the other side of the net, so it was time to step it up.  

-The first few rallies after the interval I felt that I really upped my game. I felt much more focused and in control of my emotions. I think I got a 15-10 lead at that point and that was when I really felt the momentum shift and saw that he was beginning to lack the ideas to break down my defence. That made me feel really confident because it meant that I did not have to go for early opportunities. I can always just play the rally, play to the backline and see what he was going to come up with.  

When did Vittinghus feel that he had won it?  
-I never felt that I was definitely going to win this until I got to 17-7 in the second game. At that point, I knew I was going to win. If you just looked at him, you could see that he was gone mentally. He was already thinking about the disappointment of losing and I was playing some of my best badminton. It was a good combination, and I was not going to let go of that opportunity.  

I completely blacked out 
Naturally, this historic event for Danish badminton and being the man on court that smashed down that last shuttle is at the top of achievements for Vittinghus. However, incredibly he informs us that he does not actually remember these final moments of the match.  

-It is the best moment of my career. But to be honest that exact moment where I win, the last few rallies, I completely blacked out and I do not remember anything afterwards. Now I have seen it, probably a million times on YouTube, so now I feel like maybe I have some of the memory back. It’s actually clearer for me when I lift the trophy for the first time with Poul-Erik Høyer. He gives it to me and we raise it together.  

More than the team 
-I think this was a pretty nice symbol for the fact that this was not only a win for the team that was there, but for the entire Danish badminton community. We tried so hard for so many years to get that gold so that win was not only for the 2016 team, it was for all the teams beforehand who came up short.    

Its has come home to Europe 
The Thomas Cup was first played in 1949 in Preston, England where Sir George Alan Thomas presented the trophy to the winning Malaya team. 

Being played right now, the Thomas & Uber Cup is in Aarhus, Denmark, for the first time in Europe in the modern era. Vittinghus is delighted by the news.  

-It is huge news for sure, it is one of my very favourite events. I have always dreamt about winning the Olympics, All England and the Thomas Cup. For me personally, these are the most prestigious events. So, to have the opportunity to play on home soil is something really special.  

-We have waited a long time for it now. We were very excited to host it last year, but it was postponed. I am just so very motivated and keen to be part of that team because of course it will be an unreal experience to play at home, so I am super excited that it will be played here in Denmark, Vittinghus said before the tournament. 

Can Denmark relive the fairy tale on home soil?


 
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