Hosts China were hotly favoured to take European champions Denmark in stride, but it was unconsidered Thailand that sprang a huge surprise by showing the exit door to the highly rated South Koreans, seeded in the 3/4 bracket, in Thursday's quarter-finals of the Sudirman Cup badminton mixed team championships in Nanning.
Both teams won by an identical 3-1 margin, but the twin talking points of the day were the victories notched by the Danish 2017 world champion Viktor Axelsen over Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champion (2014, 2015), Chen Long, and by the 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon, over the precocious 17-year-old Korean, An Se-young, both in straight games, albeit in differing manner.
The towering Axelsen showed more than glimpses of the foot speed and power that had fetched him the world crown at Glasgow, two years ago, with an excellent hour-long 21-11, 21-18 triumph over the 30-year-old Chen, chosen by his country ahead of the current World No 2, Shi Yuqi.
It was only the fourth victory notched over Chen by Axelsen in 16 career meetings, and he was in full command all the way, except briefly in the second game at 19-15, when he let the equally lanky Chinese player bridge the gap to within one point. However, the Dane's impressive effort went in vain as his compatriots were outpaced and outduelled by the other players in the top-seeded host nation's crack line-up.
On the other hand, the 24-year-old Intanon had to work much harder in the fourth and most crucial match of the Thailand-Korea tie, and harness all her rich experience, gained over nearly a decade in international badminton, while subduing Se-young by a 21-15, 21-17 scoreline in 53 minutes of utterly captivating badminton.
The Korean teenager, who had scored an amazing come-from-behind three-game victory over World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, during the group stages of the competition, tried every trick in the book to unsettle her illustrious Thai rival. She even resorted to playing the attritional game, made famous by Japanese stalwarts Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, in an effort to tire Intanon out in the closing reaches of the second game, when she made up an 11-15 deficit to actually go ahead at 16-15.
However, the Thai shuttle queen drew heavily on her limited reserves of stamina and put everything she had into the all-out attack with steep smashes to the flanks and net rushes that culminated in killing even a slightly weak return. Somehow, while gasping to draw breath into her tortured lungs, she managed to hold out to lodge the win that had her entire team charging onto the court and piling on top of her in a manner seen more on the football field.
The Thais were full value for their success, with their sprightly mixed doubles combination of Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai staying ahead of Seung Jae Seo and Yujung Chae for the most part, for a well-deserved 21-18, 21-18 win in 50 minutes. The Thai pair appeared in a spot of trouble only when they fell behind by a point at 17-18 in the second game, but they recovered smartly to take the final four points of the match.
In the absence of the redoubtable Son Wan Ho, still out with an injured knee, the Koreans were forced to enlist the services of Heo Kwang Hee against Kantaphon Wangcharoen, who broke away from 15-all in the very even first game, to notch a 21-17, 21-17 win in one minute less than his mixed doubles compatriots had taken. Wangcharoen was never headed off in the second game, where he led from start to finish, with Heo coming within striking distance only at 11-12.
The Koreans pulled one back when their men's doubles duo of Min Hyuk Kang and Kim Won Ho staged a rearguard action to score over Tinn Isriyanet and Kittinupong Kedren at 19-21, 21-17, 21-14, in a match that failed to score the heights. The Koreans were in danger of losing the tie when the Thais closed to 17-18 in the second game, but they kept their cool to close it out, and were not troubled in the decider.
The 2-1 tie score for Thailand set the stage for Intanon's heroine act that propelled her nation into the penultimate round, to be played on Saturday. It will be recalled that the Thai squad had ended runners-up to Japan in the prestigious Uber Cup held in Bangkok last year, with multiple-time former champions China and Korea having to remain content with bronze medals.
As for the China-Denmark clash, the matches were interesting without being compelling. It was a foregone conclusion that the powerful host nation would win the tie, but it remained to be seen what would be the margin of victory. A lot of punters would have plumped for a 3-0 scoreline, but Axelsen denied the Chinese a clean sweep.
Mathias Christensen and Sara Thygesen put up a game fight in the opening duel against the World No 1 mixed doubles team, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong, and even wrested the first game before fading to a 21-19, 11-21, 13-21 loss in three minutes over the hour mark. It is stating the obvious to say that Zheng and Huang were right on top in the second and third games.
After Axelsen had brought his team back on level terms with that memorable win over Chen Long, the reigning world champions, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen were given the task of subduing the best of Europe, in the form of Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen; and they did the job with minimal fuss at 21-18, 21-16 in 54 minutes.
The 21-year-old World No 3, Chen Yufei, took the court against Mia Blichfeldt, ranked no 21; and took a shade over three-quarters of an hour to settle the pretensions of the Dane, exactly the same age, by a 21-16, 21-17 scoreline. Yufei stepped on the gas pedal after 12-all in the second game, and left her Danish antagonist trailing in her wake, for her fourth victory over Blichfeldt in five meetings.
In the remaining two quarter-finals on Friday, second-seeded Japan will play Malaysia, while a slightly chastened Chinese Taipei, smarting from the group-stage defeat of their spearhead, Tai Tzu Ying, at the hands of An Se-young, will take on the higher ranked Indonesia, seeded in the 3/4 bracket.
The Japanese will be odds-on favourites to sweep past Malaysia, but the Indonesians may not have matters all their way against the Taiwanese, for whom Tai and World no 3, Chou Tien Chen, will play a vital role. It would be only the doubles strength of the Indonesians that could take them through, but the end-result is far from being a given.