TAI Tzu Ying: The Greatest

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Sometimes a player is more than just a player because they inhabit a unique style that captures the essence of their sport. TAI Tzu Ying is one of these people. Like Serena Williams or Lionel Messi she has that star quality whenever she competes. She is a free spirit who brings a creative exhilaration to any match.

At the YAE20 Final. Screenshot from BWF TV

When the kid from Taiwan first bust onto the international scene it was her magnificent racket skills that drew fans to her. She has the gift of being able to control time – it slows and expands to contain her talent. It is still that sensational expressive style that makes people fall in love with her but over the past decade she has added extra layers to her game. Her mesmerizing skill continues to glitter however 2020 has seen her game continue to evolve.

Tournaments at the beginning of this year have shown her address the tension between artistry and scoring points. Regular analysts had identified a tendency to lose focus midway through a match often allowing a rival to regain a foothold in the set. At the core of TTY is the power to sparkle rather than to merely play but during her campaign at the All England this year we witnessed a new element in her game – the ability to wait. The vitue of patience is a sharp weapon in badminton. The beauty of this strategy is that, in the past, it has been used against her.

I think this willingness to include new facets in her play is the sign of a great player. Developing her mental stamina alongside her prodigious gym work adds extra options when she approaches a match. There was a tangible sense in Birmingham that the time for mistakes was past; errors were reduced. Of course she is still the Queen of Deception, her magical misdirection when she is in full flow is wonderful.

In 2019 TTY sent a chill through supporters hearts when she uttered the alarming word ‘retirement’. The demands of elite sport are incredibly restrictive. The physical and emotional cost of training, competing, and international travel does not leave much time for normal life. One more Olympics, one more season and then she would finish; she talked longingly of cycling holidays around Taiwan, and of perhaps opening a school. Her instagram posts often feature her hiking in the mountains or paddling a canoe; she is obviously a person who delights in the natural world around her

None of us could have foreseen the disruption to normal life this year. With the Olympics postponed the players who keep their motivation and stay in shape will gain an advantage. There is a national competition that has been organised for elite Taiwanese athletes in August to help them review progress and sharpen their focus after this gap. TAI Tzu Ying is due to play some male rivals in order to measure herself against a tough challenge: it was decided that the available women players would not push her enough. Her victory at the All England in March was a warning to her rivals and a reassurance to her fans; the dream of seeing TTY on the podium at the Olympics is still real. This feels like a date with destiny. What a time to love women’s badminton.

At the YAE20 Final. Screenshot from BWF TV.

If you enjoyed this then read my appreciation of TTY’s win at the All England this year https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/ or this one https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/16/tai-tzu-ying-the-queen/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

An Epic Encounter: Minions v Endo/Watanabe YAE20

Exhilaration and terror in a 50/50 churning mix were the main emotions as we waited for the finalists in the Men’s Doubles competition to step onto the court.  The prospect of the world #1s Gideon and Sukumuljo taking on Endo and Watanabe was just mouth-watering.  Would Kevin and Marcus secure their third title to cement their place on the All England honour board of great Men’s Doubles pairs?  Or could Hiroyuki Endo upgrade his three previous silver medals to a Gold?  Throughout 2019 the Japanese pair were the only players to consistently beat the Minions so the fans knew the stage was set for an epic.

SET 1

The Minions won the toss and decided to serve first; Kevin took the shuttle with an air of intense focus – what followed was 21 minutes of insanely exciting badminton.  The Japanese duo’s strategy was defend, defend, defend.  Marcus and Kevin were given the opportunity to smash and they took it; Endo and Watanabe were subject to a brutal bombardment but they held firm.  The tempo was staggering, the shuttle fizzed around and both team’s reflexes were exceptional.  As the Indonesians tried to force the pace the Japanese remained patient and won the set 21-18.

SET 2 – THE FIGHTBACK

It was crucial that Kevin & Marcus seized the initiative back and right from the start their aggression and energy gave them a foundation to work from.  They stormed into a 7-2 lead then went into the mid-game interval four points ahead.  Watanabe in particular was still trying to dominate, using his shots to try and neutralise the threat of Sukamuljo at the net.  However, this set was sealed by the Indonesians 21-12 We were to be treated to a third.

SET 3 – TAKE A DEEP BREATH

Endo and Watanabe went early and went hard; racing into a 6-0 lead until the guts and defiance of Marcus Gideon halted their progress.  It was a stunning start for the Japanese men and their intent sent a shudder through the Minion’s fans.  It was plain that they intended to get a lead, seek to burn off their rivals and try and stay in front to 21.  The fight-back from the Indonesians centred around marginalising Watanabe – he was the dangerman.  The trouble was that he maintained his level.  At 8-7 there was a rally that encapsulated everything wonderful about his play: his athleticism, imagination, and anticipation all led to this moment.  He took the score to 9-7 by reaching an unreachable shuttle and taking responsibility to grasp the point.

Still the Minions fought.  At the interval they had clawed their way back into contention with the deficit only 2 points.  Watanabe was toe-to-toe with Sukamuljo and was proving to be a nuisance.  16-16 and Endo faulted.  How many finals had he contested only to get a silver medal?  18-18 and the atmosphere in the arena was beyond tense.  Whose nerve was going to hold? 19-18 to Indonesia…19-19… but suddenly the Japanese summoned up their last reserves of strength and desire to push home to win 21-19.

Watanabe and Endo with Gideon and Sukamuljo created one of the best Men’s Doubles finals ever seen at the All England.  The match was magnificent and, on the day the best pair won, although Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. In retrospect, perhaps if the Minions had varied their attack more, they could have won their third title, but that analysis ignores the fact that the Japanese were able to impose their tactics on the encounter – not consistently but enough to count.  Watanabe’s play was sensational, and his performance was the deciding factor between two exceptional men’s pairs.  The game was a privilege to watch and it will be part of All England legend.  I cannot wait for the rematch!

Screenshot from BWF TV

A version of this piece first appeared on the Yonex All England website here https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/news/in-depth-the-greatest-match-in-all-england-history/ if you enjoyed it then read my article about the Minions https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/


©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Viktor Axelsen

On the podium at the All England 2020. Screenshot from BWF TV

“I’m both happy and really emotional – it’s just crazy”

Viktor Axelsen after victory at the All England 2020

Viktor’s win over CHOU Tien Chen at the All England was roared on by thousands of fans watching in the arena and all over the world.  He became the first Danish man this century to win the Men’s Singles title and there is no doubt that he is the most successful European player in world badminton at the moment. 

Axelsen had come through a tough twelve months before taking his place at the top of the podium in Birmingham in 2020.  Back in March 2019 he was the beaten finalist; conquered in three sets by Kento Momota.  The Japanese #1 played beautifully controlled badminton and Viktor just could not impose his strategy upon the match.  He fought hard but failed.  Later that month he won the India Open, in April he was knocked out at the semi-final stage of the Singapore Open – again by Momota –  and in May, he represented Denmark at the Sudirman Cup.

Then, for a while, it seemed as though he had done something to anger the badminton Gods.  Firstly, allergies struck.  According to some reports he was suffering quite severe hayfever and his breathing was affected.  He had to pull out of the European Games. Then he stunned his supporters with the news in July that he had to withdraw indefinitely from competition owing to chronic pain in his leg.  It was a persistent injury with no obvious end in sight; it meant he was absent from Istora and we all wondered when or even if, we would see him back on court.

Any elite player who can compete without pain is an exception.  We have all spotted our favourites playing with strapping; often the tape is flesh coloured. so it isn’t too obvious but it is still there.  Similarly, a post-match press conference without applied ice is unusual.  Badminton is such a physically demanding sport.  Men’s Singles strategy requires the competitors to exert maximum movement pressure upon each other.  Speed and instantaneous changes of direction are foundations of success.  Although niggles can be endured, an injury like Viktor’s had to be healed before he could return.

Summer passed and September saw him re-emerge into the game.  It was with relief that we saw him playing with no obvious problems.  Not only that, he was still a top 10 player who could equal pretty much anyone apart from Momota on court. He started putting together some momentum and appeared in 2 Semi Finals in Oct, the new year saw this improvement continue and he arrived at the YAE with no obvious injury worries.

His tournament began very smoothly and VA reached his SF without dropping a set.  This game against the up and coming LEE Zii Jia was a ferocious battle.  The Malaysian has been tipped by LEE Chong Wei as a live hope for a medal at the next Olympics but he was playing at his first All England.  Axelsen struggled to contain his lightening speed and aggression.  It got to 19-19 in the final set and ‘that’ point.  Victor had to really sweat for his place in the final but he pushed home and secured it.

The final was set up.  CTC awaited.

From the moment Viktor stepped onto the Minoru Yoneyama court he dominated the match.  His aggression and pressure were irresistible and there were times when CTC just could not get into the rallies.  As points flew by CHOU Tien Chen was powerless to stop Axelsen’s impetus.  The Danes drive and desire, his determination to seize this opportunity was formidable.

Viktor is a competitor who wears his heart on his sleeve, and what is more, the last year has been an emotional rollercoaster. His career has had plenty of high points; he was World Champion in 2017, plus he won Bronze at the Rio Olympics but the All England is a special tournament.   He becomes the first Danish man since Peter Gade to hold the title so it was no surprise to see his overwhelming elation when he won.  It is his first Super 1000 title and when badminton restarts it’s going to be fascinating to see where his ambition can take him; for sure he must be hungry to get back onto a court and take his place amongst the best in the world.


This article first appeared on the Yonex All England website https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/

If you enjoyed this you may like this one about Anthony Ginting https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/25/anthony-sinisuka-ginting/ or this about Kento Momota https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/27/kento-momota/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved