In this special contribution, Badmintonphoto photographer Yves Lacroix brings us his best memories from on location at the recent Thomas Uber Cup Finals and the Denmark Open.
Story and photos by Yves Lacroix
Apart from my 14-day stint at the Tokyo Olympics, I had not travelled for the international circuit for almost two years when I was asked if I would cover the upcoming Thomas Uber Cup Finals and Denmark Open.
Twenty-three months had indeed passed since the Hong Kong Open 2019, held under very special circumstances in November of that year.
Having already experienced the strict COVID-19 protocols for the Tokyo Olympics, I had to mentally prepare myself for the ones in place for Denmark. Participants of the events would be required to stay in the restricted green bubble from the moment they stepped out of the plane until their departure from Denmark.
In comparison to the daily spit test required in Tokyo, being tested for COVID only twice in a week seemed like a minor inconvenience.
Despite attending some 110 international tournaments in my 17-odd years as a badminton photographer, the Thomas Uber Cup Finals and the All England were amongst the only ones I had never covered. I was very excited to achieve my first Thomas Uber Cup Final milestone. On my way over to Denmark, I also realized with horror that I hadn’t been there for almost 9 years!
The tournament was held in Aarhus, a small town in northern Denmark with a very nice light rail system. The schedule was a killer: 9 straight days with 7 of them beginning at 8:30AM. Eight of the days had evening sessions that rarely finished before 11:30PM, which meant that I had limited time for rest. To make matters even more difficult, the access to the courts, and everywhere else in the venue, were impeded by stairs which drained everyone’s energy. I even heard some players breathing heavily on their way up to the mixed zone. Luckily, my partnership with fellow photographer Yohan made the workload lighter and sometimes even shorter. Merci à lui!
I don’t care much for nationalism – particularly in sport – but I do like the concept of team events. I always found it extremely entertaining to see doubles players supporting a singles team-mate and vice versa or the fact that a third singles player can make the difference between a historic win or loss for his or her team.
The readers of this text already know about the results of the event so I will narrow down my memory of the event to its most interesting items.
I too am a sucker for underdogs and my fondest memory of the event must be of the Tahiti team. Talk about players who came out just for the love of the game! I remember one of the Tahiti players in the Mixed Zone saying, ‘When you play against a team like China, your main goal is just to avoid a 0 score.’ That’s honesty for you! Another Tahiti player was wearing a shirt of the badminton club of my former university – les Citadins de l’Université du Québec à Montréal, which accentuated my relation to the team.
However, in their last tie with the Netherlands, Tahiti achieved the impossible: they won a match! Despite the fact that it was played on Court 3 – the farthest away from the crowd – spectators slowly noticed that something special was going on and realized that Rémi Rossi was fighting for his life in his singles match against Robin Mesman. The encounter ended with an explosion of pure joy from Rossi, much to the delight of the crowd and the recognition of his opponent who showed tremendous fair play.
I was taking part in the historic moment by capturing pictures of his joy when one other member of the media stood up in front of me – for absolutely no good reason – and ruined my best picture of that incredible moment. I was furious for hours – it often happens that photographers stand up for no reason at key moments but the fact that we never numbered more than four or five members of the media on the field of play at any given time made the incident even more infuriating – but luckily many other shots captured the essence of the event.
I also remember vividly the friendly spirit between China and Denmark in the Uber Cup event. Jia Yifan and Mia Blichfeldt were engaged in a hilarious battle of the megaphones, Mia shouting ‘Denmark, jia you!’ making both the crowd and the Chinese players burst in laughter.
I like to believe that I’m usually lucky when I attend events because I’m often there when a local player wins an event, making the latter even more special. I’ve seen Gade win in Denmark, Sung Ji Hyun and Lee Yong Dae in Korea, Taufik in Indonesia, Tony Gunawan and Howard Bach in the USA, Lin Dan in China, Lee Chong Wei in Malaysia, and so on. However, I never thought I would witness Indonesia win the Thomas Cup. These are the kind of events I have written about but never thought I would witness. And it happened. There I was – one of only six photographers accredited for the event – shooting the Indonesians celebrating their first Thomas Cup title since the 2002 edition in Guangzhou, an event which I watched – and still possess – on VHS tapes. What a privilege!
In Aarhus, I had the chance to finally meet Camilla Martin. She is now acting as a journalist for TV2, but until now, I had known her mostly as a player on those same VHS tapes. A very friendly Camilla gladly agreed to pose in front of a magnificent painting of her on the walls of the venue. We talked about her unforgettable win at the 1999 World Championships in which she played the bravest rally I have ever seen in almost 30 years of watching badminton. I very much enjoyed chatting with the player whom I asked for an autograph at my very first international tournament, namely the 1995 Danish Open in Odense.
The mention of the latter event is the perfect segue for the second tournament I was asked to attend. Not only was I to cover my first ever Thomas Uber Cup Finals but I would also be back where it first started for me, in 1995. Like I said, my first international tournament ever was the 1995 Danish Open in Odense, which I attended as a spectator. (Viktor Axelsen, a native of the city, was only one year old at the time.)
I had planned a visit to Europe in October 1995 and decided to combine a visit to my dear friend Elisabeth in Liechtenstein with a trip to Denmark for the Danish Open. I wrongly supposed that the event would take place at Brøndby and headed for København. Arriving at my hotel, I switched on the TV and saw Camilla doing a commercial for V6 (which you can watch here). Boy was I impressed! I’m really in a badminton country, I thought. So, the next morning, I headed to Brøndby where I was told that the tournament was held elsewhere in Denmark. I probably didn’t understand much because the gentleman who informed me wrote ‘Odense i Fyn’ on a piece of paper.
With that precious piece of paper, I headed the following morning to the station and grabbed the very first train to Odense – at the time, the train had to embark on a boat to get to the island of Fyn – and spent six entire days watching world class badminton and sporadically asking players for autographs. I remember going down on court after the finals to talk with the late Preben Søborg. Totally starstruck I was.
Just to emphasize how things have changed since then, I remember asking at the ticket table if someone could tape the tournament for me. One nice young volunteer gladly agreed to and I ran to a nearby store to buy two four-hour VHS tapes. She then rushed to her home to insert one of the tapes in her VCR to record the semi-finals which had started about 30 minutes earlier. Nowadays, badminton fans watch live streaming in HD from day one of an event. They surely don’t realize how lucky they are.
In any case, I would have never guessed that I would be back in the same arena 26 years later shooting for a not-yet-born agency called Badmintonphoto and the BWF. Nor would I have guessed that players I was chasing for autographs would someday be colleagues who call me by my first name. It is a journey that I never thought I would be lucky enough to embark upon and to come around in a full circle. I felt especially lucky to be at 2021 Denmark Open because I learned that it was the last time that the Odense Idreatshal would host the event.
To continue with the story, we all headed for Odense after the conclusion of the Thomas Uber Cup Finals. I barely recognized the city, apart from a few spots. The venue completely changed, and I could barely recognize it, inside or out. Nevertheless, the atmosphere remained the same as it was in 1995.
There were large crowds which made for a great atmosphere. Once again, I was lucky and witnessed another home favourite win when Viktor Axelsen defeated Momota in the final.
During the men’s singles final, the stadium was so packed that, for the first time in over two weeks, I had problems finding a spot to shoot the match from the stands.
Apart from the action, my attachment to the personalities of some of the players grew even more. I was already quite fond of Kirsty Gilmour – especially after her gracious attitude following the Canada Open 2017 women’s singles final. That woman is pure class, I thought. Well, not only is she pure class but pure fun as well. Rarely have I seen a player talking openly with the media instead of just answering questions. It is extremely refreshing.
Mia Blichfeldt is another sweetheart. Always joking with her opponents, her bubbly personality makes me care for her wins and losses. I was therefore heartbroken when she was in tears during an interview in the mixed zone after her early and unexpected loss in Odense. I could have taken a picture of her pain but chose instead to respect such a personal moment.
I must also mention that due to COVID restrictions, accreditations were given only to a handful of photographers for the two events. This made shooting very easy and pleasant, despite the unending days in Aarhus (the Uber Cup medal ceremony ended at 1AM!). There were also fewer TV cameras blocking our view and plenty of space between courts, so the referees didn’t have to control pesky photographers overflowing into restricted areas. When things get back to normal, I will surely miss these unusual but pleasant conditions.
In any case, after the event, almost everybody was heading to the French Open. Players and yours truly had to catch the 2:15AM bus to Billelund for our respective early flights. I always try to consider every event as if it were my last – and rightfully so. Who would have guessed that the 2019 Hong Kong Open would be my last for almost two years? But despite this effort, I couldn’t help wondering, while boarding my plane for Frankfurt, where my next assignment and 111th international tournament will be…