TAI Tzu Ying is a brilliant player; her style on court is spine-tingling. Peerless racket skills have elevated her to superstar status and she is an athlete loved around the world as the best of her generation. Coach LAI, who was head coach of the Taiwan national team, resigned after the Korean Open to focus solely on TTY. It is the coach’s responsibity to enable their player fulfil their potential. Beautiful shots side by side with errors in a game do not equal medals and will ultimately be unsatisfactory. We don’t know much of what happens in TTY’s training sessions but mistakes and concentration drift have cost her titles this year. This is the time to be single-minded about ambition.
2019 has seen three major tournament wins: the Danish, Malaysian and Singapore Opens. The quality of the athletes who contest Women’s Singles competitions is reflected in this; it’s the most finely balanced and competitive of the five sectors. Matches with people like Akane, Marin, AN Se Young, and Sindhu mean there are no easy victories. As the winner of the Yonex All England in the two previous years, 2019 saw her arrive in Birmingham as the favourite, but she failed in her bid to make it a hattrick of victories when she lost in the final to the Chinese player CHEN Yufei. History repeated itself at the BWF World Tour Finals when she lost in three sets to a determined and patient Yufei. Badminton immortality beckons but can she cement her status as one of the all-time greats?
There is no other player on earth who can execute the shots she has; her technical skill is unmatched in the women’s game. What is it that makes her stand apart from her peers? She is the Queen of deception. The creative imagination she brings to her play is exquisite. As spectators it is futile to predict where she will place the shuttle so she constantly surprises and delights us. The variety of angles and control of pace she can achieve is quite unbelievable. Her backhand, on the turn, on the run and taken late is wonderful to see.
Of course, this style of play creates huge problems for her rivals. The psychological pressure that she exerts is immense. Most top players build an element of anticipation into their movement on court because the earlier they reach the shuttle the more time they will have to play the shot they want. TTY takes time away from her opponents as they can never quite predict what she will do. Angles which may seem impossible to mere mortals pose no problems for her to create. She likes to be on the attack and can cover the court’s four corners easily.
Interestingly, against players like Ratchanok Intanon (who is probably closest to her in terms of style) the match often turns into a series of “anything you can do I can do better”. The duels between these two feature jaw-dropping precision, mutual admiration and good humour. They are both courageous players who routinely ignore the percentages and dare themselves to aim for the edge. This leads me to suspect that TTY plays mainly for the love of the game. She revels in her skills and enjoys perfecting a shot; she will often try the same one 3 or 4 times in a match until she can get it right.
She would be invincible if not for a tendency to lose focus at times. Often, she will win the first game but then lose her grip on the second. Sometimes this has catastrophic consequences. Momentum is a key feature of success in many sports; if an adversary like Carolina Marin or AN Se Young is given the opportunity to get into their rhythm it can be tough to get the initiative back. This has been the feature of some of her losses in the past. In this year’s final of the Yonex All England CHEN Yu Fei just would not allow TTY to get into the game; she kept the pressure and pace high and won in straight games. At the World Tour Finals it went to three games and there was the suggestion that the coin toss and the drift in the hall were key players. However, that is a disservice to CHEN Yufei who had to battle back into the match after being annihilated in the first set. CYF wrestled the direction of the game from her, then refused to return it, however hard Tzu Ying tried.
She is the centre of a close-knit group of people who support her on and off court. Her father still strings her rackets in a slightly idiosyncratic pattern, she’ll post images of herself and her team off-duty, obviously enjoying each other’s company climbing a mountain in Taiwan or out dining together. She also shares pictures of her team working with her in the gym, preparing her body for the demands of this explosive athletic sport. She is famous for her six-pack, which she seems to maintain alongside a taste for ice-cream and French fries.
Her spontaneous genius means she is an icon of modern worldwide badminton. Is she the greatest ever Women’s Singles player? Her brilliance is a joyful expression of the best of the game but I think she needs some key titles to secure her iconic status. To land her third All England title in March would be a sign of intent, but we are all gazing at the Gold medal on offer in Tokyo.
I’ll give the last word to GEL, one of her biggest fans:
“She’s the QUEEN – That’s all you need to know!”
An earlier version of this was published on the Yonex All England website in November 2019 https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/
Here is a link to an earlier piece I wrote about her https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/ and this one about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/
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