It has been an extraordinary 12 months: alternating between feast and famine as the players enter bubbles for intense periods of competition and then exit to recover. These are my biased, sentimental, affectionate awards for 2021.
Player of the Year: TAI Tzu Ying
In 2021 we have watched this impulsive free spirit confirm her reputation among the greats of the world game. Outstanding technical skills and creative genius often elevate her shots to works of art. A key target this year has been to step up her performance at the Olympics and World Championships so winning Silver at both is a significant improvement. She has stayed fresh and relatively injury free by focusing on only a few tournaments and she has been ever-present in the finals. The good news is that we can expect to see her on court in 2022 as the threat of retirement seems to have been put on hold for the time being.
Runners Up: CHEN Yufei for her error-free capture of Olympic Gold and Akane Yamaguchi who has been indefatigable and a worthy World Champion.
Best Competitor: Greysia Polii
The breathtaking Gold in Tokyo was a sensational, momentous achievement. Of course, Apriyani Rahayu had a significant role in the victory, but I want to highlight Greysia. Although retirement appeared to be on the horizon she was determined not to fade quietly into the background. A last Olympics, a last chance to get on the podium and boy did she grab it. Congratulations Greysia, always one of my favourite players
XD Player of the Year: HUANG Dongping & Sapsiree Taerattanachai
I cannot choose between these two brilliant players. HUANG Dong Ping’s Gold at the Olympics was magnificent; the final was a glorious tie between four gifted athletes. She is brave, has great reflexes and is adept at using the flat game to aggressive advantage. Popor has also enjoyed a stunning 12 months, winning eight titles, and – other than the Olympics – she and Bass have dominated the XD scene. Their physical resilience and mental strength are second to none. Interestingly both stand-out players compete successfully in WD as well.
Best Pair: Nami Matsuyama & Chiharu Shida
It’s been fascinating to watch their improvement recently; the leap from Super 100/300 up to the top levels has been harmonious and their upwards momentum got great rewards at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Maybe the Japanese ‘house style’ is evolving because they are more aggressive and more willing to try and seize the initiative than we expect. Both work hard, support each other and obviously enjoy their matches.
Runners Up: Greysia Polii & Apriyani Rahayu – seeing my two favourites get Gold at the Olympics is one of my best badminton moments ever.
Parabadminton player of the Year: Leani Ratri Oktila
Gold, Gold, Silver at the Tokyo Paralympic games – at Parabadminton’s debut the world #1 was totally dominant.
If He Was A Woman I’d Give Him An Award Too: Viktor Axelsen
A year packed full of achievements – bravo Viktor!
These are just some of the people I have loved to watch in 2021: it’s just my subjective opinion, I can’t pretend that I have spent any time evaluating the stats. The Olympics and the tournament bubbles have made this year unique. Some have thrived but injuries and withdrawals from tournaments have been common; let’s hope for less of a treadmill in 2022. There have been so many highlights (which I’ll cover in my Review of the Year) so I would like to thank all the players and everyone from the badminton community for making this such a memorable twelve months.
This was a bravura performance from the world #1 that finally advanced her beyond QF at the World Championships for the first time in six attempts.
TTY’s touch and strategy today were dazzling. From the outset she took control of the tie. Her shots – especially her drops – punished Sindhu all over the court. Deploying pinpoint accuracy, TTY was mean with her margins and screwed down the pressure on her opponent. The rallies were driven on at a brutal pace; in-between the rallies TTY barely took a breather, she kept focused and kept the momentum of the game rolling. Sindhu could not get any foothold in the match however hard she fought. A virtuoso victory over two sets: a wonderful time to love TAI Tzu Ying.
Akane in a recent article by Dev Sukumar. Courtesy BWF
Watching a revitalized Akane win back-to-back tournaments in Denmark and France has been one of the highlights of the last few weeks.
She has been the standout player on the circuit recently. Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of multiple competitions since Tokyo 2020, she has flourished.
Sudirman & Uber Cup
Akane was at the heart of Japan’s success in the team competitions in Vantaa and Aarhus. Two silver medals do not do justice to her immense contribution. Both times Japan lost in the final to China, but both times she chalked up victories against CHEN Yu Fei in straight sets. There was an all-consuming intensity to these games. She seldom made mistakes and as she upped the tempo of the match CYF struggled to find scoring opportunities because her rival’s court coverage was formidable. Contrast this to their previous meeting in the same competition (Sudirman Cup 2019) and her improvement is clear. The next time these two face each other over a net is going to be awesome.
Victor Denmark Open: October 2021
In the Uber Cup AN Se Young was the only player to unpick Akane’s defence (in two sets) and so this final was an opportunity to see what effect the loss had had upon her Japanese foe. The first set was controlled by ASY; despite a heavily strapped thigh her movement was fluid and dominant. The second set began in much the same way with Yamaguchi struggling to summon up the energy to put any fizz on the shuttle; she was making mistakes too and there seemed to be an inevitability to the Korean’s advance to the top of the podium. By 16-16 Akane was fighting desperately to stay in the match: diving, scrambling, scrapping and just giving everything to stay in contention. 18-18. 19-19. A match point to ASY came and went amidst exhausting rallies. The score reached 23-23 before Akane was able to get the points needed to close it out 25-23. Ominously, in the interval, ASY ripped off her strapping and called for the doctor for the second time.
The third set was a story of triumph and tragedy. As it began, it was obvious that the Korean was less smooth in her movements. With the score against her at 3-7 she was red carded for ‘delay’ but effectively she was trying to work out whether she could continue and at 16-5 down she admitted defeat.
No-one ever wants to win a title in these circumstances, but Akane’s triumph was based on perseverance and her emphatic refusal to concede the game in the second set. AN Se Young missed her opportunity to win when she failed to convert her match point. Akane was very courageous in Set 2 since she committed everything to those long rallies; her grit paid off as ASY wilted under the grueling examination of her stamina. This was a fascinating duel.
Yonex French Open 2021
Yamaguchi’s European success continued with her title win against compatriot Sayaka Takahashi in Paris. A straight sets victory, this was a little more straightforward but there are no easy games at this level. Akane’s top-quality defence and stamina effectively neutralized her opponent’s threat; Takahashi stayed with the momentum at first, but she was forced to cut her margins and go for the line so, as she tired, mistakes crept into her game. The final score was 21-18, 21-12.
Back in July 2019 Akane Yamaguchi was world #1 – albeit briefly – but later suffered training disruption and some shock defeats owing to niggly injuries. In common with many in the Japanese team there were substantial expectations on her shoulders when the Olympics began but she was unable to make a significant impact. Now I think she has revisited her motivation to compete and it has given her a fresh outlook. Her epic battle with AN Se Young for the Denmark title showcased her unending resilience and phenomenal court coverage; I hope we get the chance to see plenty more clashes between these two. As one of the most lovable athletes on the tour plenty of fans will be cheering her on to more podium finishes. The Bali bubble beckons and she can travel to Indonesia with plenty of confidence that she will be making a big impression.
This edition of the SC was lit up by the brilliance of the women players. Their spirit and strength were at the heart of the most successful teams.
The return by Misaki to Women’s Doubles for this tournament was a bittersweet gift to her admirers. The scratch pairing with Mayu Matsumoto had a few rough edges yet it was a treat to watch. Misaki is a genius at the net – her touch and vision are sensational – but the skill that lifts her to Goddess status is her will to win. At critical moments she can find a new level and seize victory. In the semi-final against Malaysia, especially in the second set, her drive and aggression were unplayable and they beat TAN/THINAAH to seal the win for Japan. I wish her all the best in her Mixed Double’s journey but I wish she was still playing WD.
Akane Yamaguchi – Most Valuable Player
At a pivotal time in the final Akane gave a stellar performance: she had the self-belief and resources to challenge the best and gave BirdJapan hope. She is an outstanding defender; in the final there were patches against CHEN Yufei when she was under intense pressure from the Olympic Champion. Her strategy of keeping her tempo and defending everything however hopeless meant that CYF could never really settle into the sort of rhythm that lets her win 5 or 6 points in a row. Often functioning on instinct, she was simply brilliant and won the match in two games 21-19, 21-16.
In the run-up to the final, CYF was always the nucleus of Chinese victory. In the quarter-final against Denmark her match against Mia Blichfeldt was a ‘must win’ because China – already trailing – risked elimination 0-3 if she could not level before the Men’s Singles. The tie was pulsating with the competitive advantage ebbing and flowing between the two athletes. She held her nerve under intense scrutiny and clung on in the decider to win. In the semi-final against Korea, she lost the first set to AN Seyoung but was resolute and sucked ASY into her patient, error-free style which suffocated resistance. It was only in the final against Yamaguchi’s faster pace that she lost a match.
Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitheran
The young Malaysian pair have been catching my eye for the last year or so and they have really started to challenge some of the more established doubles teams. They stood out in this competition because of their fighting spirit and unwillingness to concede defeat. Against GreyAp in the quarter final they battled the Olympic Champions for 90 minutes and saved six match points. There’s no doubt they are the rising stars of this sector and I can’t wait to watch them again.
Honourable Mentions Also To:
CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan for closing out the final and refusing to be intimidated by MatsuMatsu. Gregoria for making a fight of it in Indonesia’s quarter final and ending the competition with a 100% record. Mia Blichfeldt for her epic encounter with CHEN Yufei, and Greysia Polii for ‘surviving’.
Congratulations to China for their twelfth win in the Sudirman Cup – even without some of their best-know stars they arrived as favourites. There were some nail-biting matches and Denmark came close to eliminating them but in the end they deserved their victory.
Tai Tzu Ying is the creative spark who can elevate badminton into more than sport. The fusion of brilliant shots and brave resolve is breathtaking to watch. Her sensational technical skills make comparisons with Roger Federer easy. Just like him she can do just about anything with her racket; the variety and fluency is electrifying.
However, she has struggled to play her best games at the past two Olympics. No medal at London 2012 or Rio 2016 so, with talk of retirement in the air, the focus has been on Tokyo. Fans around the world have craved a podium spot for her so The Queen arrived in Japan with a clear goal.
TAI Tzu Ying came to the final to win; CHEN Yu Fei arrived determined not to lose. Two equals but with contrasting approaches to the match. It was a fascinating clash. CHEN Yu Fei is strategically shrewd and her consistency was effective in neutralising some of TTY’s flair: she won the first set 21-18. TAI Tzu Ying fought back hard in set two to force a decider. It was a relentless battle on court and inside the player’s heads.
Set three began badly for TAI Tzu Ying. CHEN Yu Fei pounced on some errors and racked up quick points to lead 10-3. TTY’s fighting spirit was not subdued though. Over some intensely nerve-wracking minutes she clawed her way back into contention but although she almost caught up she could not alter the momentum of the contest. CHEN Yu Fei triumphed 21-18.
So finally TAI Tzu Ying has an Olympic medal; it would have been unbearable if she had returned home to Taiwan empty-handed. She was true to herself and the way she has to play the game. Just like Federer at London 2012 she came to win Gold but in the end got Silver. She couldn’t have given any more to the fight. Congratulations TAI Tzu Ying from your millions of fans – we are so proud of you!
TAI Tzu Ying was breathtaking today as she seized a place in the Olympic final. Her flair and courage were irresistable. PV Sindhu fought hard but at crucial moments she could not contain the creative genius of the Queen.
The battle for the first set saw the balance of power swing backwards and forwards between the two athletes. Sindhu has rediscovered her 2019 form in Tokyo and she refused to allow TTY to get any scoring momentum although she could not take control herself. Both players were utterly focused on their quest for the final. Sindhu led at the interval and stayed with the scoring up to 18-18 but TAI’s strategy of moving the World Champion from side to side whilst trying to push her back succeeded in minimising the threat of the Indian’s power smash. This was very shrewd and allowed her to take charge in the last three points and secure the opening set 21-18.
The second set and a change of ends saw the screw being turned by TAI Tzu Ying. Although it was pretty even at the interval the scoreline was ticking over nicely in favour of Taiwan. Errors started to creep in from Sindhu and she was finding it increasingly tricky to control the shuttle in her long shots. The pressure was relentless and TAI’s exquisite technical skills were allowing her to drive the direction of the game; in the end the set was closed out 21-12
So, we have the priviledge of being able to watch TAI Tzu Ying in an Olympic final: something I have craved for years. Since she started mentioning retirement the focus for fans has been this gold medal match. Moments like these are fleeting, I hope she enjoys the game, with no injuries and does justice to her magnificent talent.
Inevitably this competition will be an emotional roller coaster. Nothing is decided except that there will be a new Olympic champion.
There will be 43 competitors on day 1; in this sector there are 14 seeds and so the preliminary stages will break down into 13 groups of 3 and one group of 4. The group of four includes the #2 seed (TTY) who then gets a bye in the R16; although CHEN Yufei is in a group of three, as #1 seed she also has a bye at that stage.
Nozomi Okuhara (3)
The winner of a Bronze medal in Rio will be one of the standout players in Tokyo. She knows what it takes to get on the podium and has every chance of upgrading to Gold in her home Olympics. Her progress as a competitor since those 6 defeats in finals in 2019 has been outstanding and her victory over Marin at the 2020 Denmark Open was important with a strong redemptive quality. The only other tournament she has played in this year – Yonex All England 2021 – also ended with a win so it would seem that Nozomi has spent lockdown learning how to turn silver into Gold.
TAI Tzu Ying (2)
The exhilaration of watching TTY in full flow belongs on the world stage of the Olympics yet she has never shone in this tournament. The opportunity to win a medal here is something her many fans (myself included) crave for her. Chances like this are fleeting and she has been frank about her intention to retire ‘soon’. I would love to see this sublime player become part of Olympic badminton legend. Prediction: Gold.
CHEN Yu Fei (1)
The top seed has not competed internationally since YAE20 so I’m intrigued to discover whether she has altered much about her game. She is resilient and is adept at staying in a match. Her composure and stubborn persistence against players who have more flair means she often waits for them to run out of ideas and then attacks. Her strength may also be a weakness: I have wondered in the past how risk-averse she is because sometimes she just seems too patient. This was part of the reason for her defeat against TTY in the final in Birmingham in 2020. If she makes the final – her route may involve beating AN Se Young and Nozomi – it could prove to be the difference between silver and Gold.
Pursala V Sindhu (6)
At her best Sindhu is uncontainable and although she seems to suffer inconsistent form there’s no doubt she can raise her game at the top tournaments. Nozomi must still get nightmares about her annihilation by PVS at the 2019 World Championship final. Her part of the draw is tough, but at her best she has the beating of Blichfeldt and Akane. Indian women’s singles has a great tradition of success at the Olympics – including Sindhu’s Silver in Rio – so she has the experience to force her way into the reckoning.
Ratchanok Intanon (5)
May’s sparkling skills on court could mean a medal chance in her third Olympics but her route to the podium is scary. Probably she will meet Gregoria in the R16 and assuming she progresses past the Indonesian it’s likely that her QF will be against TAI Tzu Ying. This is a neutral’s nightmare. These two breathtaking players light up every tournament so I’m sorry that one of them will lose their chance of glory. The head-to-head stats are pretty even (15-14 in TTY’s favour) so it will be a fascinating and excruciating game to spectate.
Akane Yamaguchi (4)
Akane has been under the radar more than her compatriot during lockdown so we’ll have to wait to see what sort of form she’s in. Her counter-punching style could work effectively at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza so although she doesn’t have a particulary convincing record against some of the others in her part of the draw I see her as a firm contender.
AN Se Young (7)
ASY has been regarded as a dark horse chance for the Gold here since she flew up the rankings in 2019. Earlier this year she did OK in Thailand – getting to semi-finals – but she wasn’t able to push on to a final. She is at the stage in her career now where fine tuning and incremental gains are important if she is to dominate consistently. She’s a wonderful all-rounder but sometime I consider that she puts too much emphasis on defence. I’d like to see her take the initiative more. In a recent interview with BWF she highlighted her victory over TTY in the Sudirman Cup as a turning point but I think the frustration of being ‘nearly there’ will be perfect fuel for her ambition. Prediction: Paris 2024 Gold
HBJ seems to have been replaced by her super-slim twin sister during lockdown and I’m excited to see what has changed about her approach in the course of the pandemic. It’s unlikely that the lack of international competition will have disadvantaged either of the Chinese competitors because they enjoy such a high standard domestically so it’s feasible that she will have added a new dimension to her play. If the seeding works as expected then her first big test is going to be in a QF against Nozomi – she doesn’t have a good H2H against the Japanese so if she can pull off a win then she may have to face her compatriot for a spot in the final. Prediction QF Exit.
Women’s Singles is crowded with fine athletes so it’s tricky to highlight one player who already has a foot on the podium. Olympic Gold is someone’s destiny and it looks to me as though it will boil down to Nozomi V Tzu Ying. The person who can stay fit, focused and adapt quickly to the conditions in the arena will have an advantage, but it’s always a hard tournament to call. TTY knows she must stay patient and cut out mistakes, Nozomi has to be confident in her ability to keep asking the tough questions. I’m impatient for it to start so we can enjoy the path to victory and watch dreams come true.
In a breaking news story the Rio 2016 Gold medalist has announced that she will be unable to defend her title in Tokyo.
The devastating news came after she felt some discomfort in her left anterior cruciate ligament during training last week. The medics have confirmed that she will have to undergo surgery to repair both meniscus and the torn ACL. It’s quite hard to speculate what the future holds but there is no doubt that this is a serious injury. She had the drive and self-belief to recover from a similar problem to her right knee so she knows the scale of the work that awaits her.
Marin is a fierce competitior who has shown a fantastic commitment to the sport throughout lockdown. She has been willing to travel far and wide to continue playing in tournaments; her two wins in Thailand in January were out of the top drawer.
The tournament in Tokyo will not be the same without her. Best wishes Caro!
The whole tournament is dominated by the most eagerly awaited comeback in modern badminton history. The return of Momota. The spotlight will be on him from the second he steps back on court.
Kento Momota is like a ravenous lion circling a water hole and preparing to pounce on unsuspecting antelope; here is a lion who hasn’t tasted red meat in a looong time.
It’s impossible to guess his level of fitness after such a lengthy absence but his superior mental strength will have driven him on to train and stay focused. He has all the weapons to regain his title after missing the AE last year and he can often expose highly seeded opponents as one-dimensional. He has an aura of a returning king although he must feel some nerves about the standards he can reach at the beginning of his campaign. Viktor Axelsen has set a high benchmark over the past three months so Momota must be on guard. Prediction: Final
Viktor Axelsen – the defending champion – had a brilliant January in Thailand so he will be arriving in Birmingham with high hopes of keeping his title. He has been awesome at grabbing opportunities to win over the past 3 months: a living embodiment of Carpe Diem. However, that loss at the WTF keeps niggling away at me. His power, fitness and will to win are second to none but he was unsettled by Antonsen’s cunning tactics. Falling prey to a version of the rope-a-dope trick must have been incredibly frustrating and I wonder what the effect of that will be long-term. Axelsen has introduced us to his ‘mental coach’ recently, who is an ex special forces soldier so he clearly wishes to explore how his psychology can give him an edge. In the final of the Swiss Open he was unstoppable as he bulldozed his way to the trophy. It’s worth noting that his opponent – Vitidsarn – did start the encounter well and his tactics reminded me of Momota’s ‘waiting game’ approach, but he made too many errors and ran out of steam. Momota has plenty of stamina and he knows not to give VA power to feed off, so if they meet in the final Viktor should be pushed harder. Prediction Runner up
Anders Antonsen – the WTF Champion – is never a person to fade into the background and the past six months have been full on drama. Starting in October, his epic battle against Gemke in the final of the Denmark Open left both unable to walk unaided from the arena, in November he contracted Covid, January saw patchy performances in the first two tournaments in Bangkok then he roared back to form in the WTF to snatch victory away from Axelsen; this all adds layers of experience to an intelligent player who needs to be on court. Viktor has better fitness and stamina but Antonsen has better strategies. Last year’s YAE saw him retire hurt from his semi-Final against CHOU Tien Chen which was a huge disappointment as he had every chance of making the final at that point. He is seeded 3 so it may be that we see an all-Danish semi final with the liklihood of a fired-up Viktor looking for revenge.
Anthony Ginting spearheads the Indonesia challenge in this sector. When he is consistently at his best, he is unstoppable and we saw flashes of this brilliance in Thailand but he didn’t have enough for a podium finish. On the whole, after such a long break, his performance gave some cause for optimism, or at least no cause for alarm. In the SF of the Yonex Thailand Open he came up against a resolute VA in the third set but overall, he lost that tie 53-55 which puts a revealing slant on his defeat. His levels dropped off in the next two tournaments and this is exasperating as he is such a glorious player. I saw lockdown as a useful opportunity for some players to improve areas of their game and instinctively I would point to his ‘third set’ strategies. There are not really gaps in his technique but something is missing in this area that his coaches need to address. I would love to see him come to Birmingham and gift us fans a MomoGI in the semi final. And then I want a final.
Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the World Junior Champion for three years running (2017/18/19) and is one of badminton’s rising stars. Axelsen demolished him in the second set of the final of the Swiss Open but his fluency around the court and technical skill is exciting. As he builds on his experience and puts more hours in at the gym we will see an improvement in stamina and pace. The fact that he stayed with Viktor in the first set whilst playing patiently should worry Jonatan Christie who plays him in the first round.
Jonatan Christie is seeded 5 and has a brutal draw: possibly meeting Axelsen at the QF stage. If so then he could struggle to progress as their h2h coupled with the Danes form doesn’t indicate any easy points. It would be wonderful to see him get to the weekend but it would be a bit of a jaw-dropper if he can subdue the Dane. Last year LEE Zii Jia who is seeded 6, had a thrilling run to the SF before losing in a closely fought match with VA. He is very mobile, with good technical skills, a great player for a neutral to support. He looked a bit lethargic at the Swiss Open so perhaps he is an athlete who needs to compete consistently to maintain his focus and pace. A possible Quarter Final with Momota is on the horizon and to have any dream of progress he must improve on his recent form.
Owing to Marin’s late withdrawal from the tournament the top half of the draw is suddenly looking less intimidating for the other players. Akane, Pornpawee, and Pursala would have had to beat her to get to the final; now there is one less obstacle on the road.
Akane Yamaguchi is seeded 3 but still, this will be the first time we have seen her in an international tournament for a year and I honestly don’t know what we can expect. She was the beaten finalist (in three sets) against Nozomi at the All-Japan National Championships in December. Before the pandemic her brief period at World #1 was followed by some inconsistency. At her best, she is a contender for the title, so the puzzle is about the level she is at when she hits the courts on the 17th March. She is known as a retriever but there have been occasions when she has used a fiercer style; combining more aggression with her great court coverage will give her more options when she is under pressure. The prospect of a QF against Pornpawee is intriguing. Mew nearly beat Marin in the Semi Final of the Swiss Open; she seemed down and out but hauled herself back into contention. Peppery unpredictability with unlimited stamina could be a good strategy.
Nozomi Okuhara‘s victory in the final of the Denmark Open over Marin came after a dazzling two sets; she would not let the Spaniard get a foothold in the game. The strategy of frustrating and denying her the chance to build a competitive rhythm disrupted her momentum and was a key element in Nozomi’s success. In the context of 2019 where she consistently reached finals only to lose this was a big breakthrough. The court coverage, stamina and sheer stubbornness of Nozomi are hard to break. She last won in 2016 but with the Tokyo Olympics in mind she will be aiming to become a hard player to beat at the end of a tournament so this is the perfect place to set a marker. The hall conditions should suit her but she must get the right balance between attack and defence.
Ratchanok Intanon – the #4 seed – is coming to the All England for another shot at winning the title. She was close in 2017 but was relegated to Silver by TAI Tzu Ying. We often criticise TTY for lack of patience but I think that May suffers with this too – her sublime technical skills sometimes mean that she doesn’t play the percentages. May could potentially be looking at a semi-final against Nozomi which would be a dream for fans. Rather like Anthony in the MS I wish she was more solid in the third set. It’s harder than it looks to behave with restraint in that section of a match but it is within her capabilities; we have all watched epic games where she fights with incredible grit and courage. In her 2020 win at the Indonesia Masters she overcame Marin in three sets so she can be inspired by this.
Pornpawee CHOCHUWONG’s progress since her victory over Carolina Marin at the Spain Masters in 2020 has been dislocated because of the effect of Covid cancellations on the badminton tour. Nevertheless, she had victories over TAI Tzu Ying and Ratchanok in Bangkok which shows that she has the ability to compete with the best. Her recent SF match against Carolina Marin at the Swiss Open was a defeat but she pushed all the way with a gritty and skilful display. Seeded 6 she has every reason to be optimistic if she can cut some of her errors. It would be an upset if she won the title but she has a chance – especially in the absence of Marin – and the mental stamina to push all the way to the end of a third set. Her obstinate outlook is a big advantage and it could be the foundation of tremendous achievements.
I would love to see Pursala V Sindhu rampage through the early rounds of this competition in the sort of form that won her the title at the World Championships in 2019. She’s a great athlete, but it just seems that sometimes she cannot dig herself out of a hole when the game tilts away from her. The final at the Swiss Open showed her difficulties; she struggled on her lunges to the front court to reach wide shots and wasn’t using any creativity to stop Marins anticipatory game. On the positive side she did get to the final and in the first set she seemed to have a bit more speed around the court. I hope that her coaching environment becomes more settled so that she can continue to develop her range.
So we have a men’s competition where we have to measure athletes against Viktor’s tough standards but Momota has returned to complicate things and a women’s competition that is missing TTY and Carolina but still features players with a realistic chance of the Gold medal later on in the year in Tokyo. All England success this year will go to the competitor who can come to the court with intensity and desire after twelve months of disruption and boredom. Can Viktor prove that he is the new King of the courts?
TAI Tzu Ying is celebrated as a dazzling player: the best of her generation. She is a sensational athlete who combines breath-taking technical skill with daring and panache. She is applauded by millions of fans worldwide whenever she appears. However, when she wins a title her celebratory snapshot on Instagram always contains at least four more people. This is her acknowledgement of the huge team effort behind her victories. In this article I want to look at some of the people who help light TTY’s path to glory.
Coach LAI – Head Coach
“…all we can do is be better than before.”
Coach LAI in conversation with BWF TV
The badminton Gods were smiling on the day LAI Chien Cheng was assigned to work at TTY’s high school for his Substitute Military Service. Over the years this chance meeting sparked a collaboration that has been a blessing for both. LAI had a good badminton background but made the decision to finish his sporting career when he was 21 preferring instead to put his energy into his post grad studies. After connecting through her school badminton programme, at first, he was TTY’s sparring partner but his importance to her meant that his contribution expanded and in Feb 2015 he became her official coach. By the end of 2016 she was world #1
LAI’s strength is that he understands what style to use to inspire TAI. He is in a position of respect but he is on TTYs wavelength, so his emotional literacy enables him to get the most from his player. She has commented in the past that other coaches have attempted to change her style but she ‘can’t’ play like that. He recognises that there will be no reward in altering her game.
TTY’s impulsiveness and freedom to express badminton joy on court means that she uses shots that rivals can’t imagine. LAI has said that he tries to focus on areas to improve and look for incremental gains. At elite level small advances can make a huge difference and revitalise a player’s armoury. LAI remarked recently that his biggest challenge has been to innovate in training – he was reluctant to copy other people’s methods because it would lead to stagnation. I have heard a similar observation from Fernando Rivas when he has spoken about his work with Carolina Marin. Both men understand that to achieve the extraordinary they have to be pioneers.
Crucially LAI says that he will often find more than one solution to a problem. He has a genuine relationship with TTY that has a foundation in trust and honesty so the communication between them allows a focus on the process of training and this builds a winning attitude.
It was no big surprise in February 2019 to hear that LAI had been asked to become the head coach for the Taiwan badminton team for the Olympics – he was widely regarded as one of the brightest young coaches in the world at that point. In the following six months TTY’s titles dried up. He resigned from his role in October 2019 so that he could concentrate his attention back to her.
However, the relationship did not resume exactly as before. The support team had been reinforced in Jan 2019 and this meant there were three more people to help fuel the search for excellence:
WAN Chia Hsin – Coach
We often see Coach WAN talking to TTY and holding the ice pack to her neck in the intervals in matches. He competed internationally for Taiwan up to 2014 and now works in her team. His responsiblity is to implement Coach Lai’s plans. This is a vital part of the framework around TAI Tzu Ying. He will provide precise assessments on areas for attention, and feedback to LAI to influence strategies. A second coach means that ideas and tactics can be analysed from new viewpoints.
Wang Shih-Ting – Physiotherapist
A large part of WANG’s role is to address aches and pains; I doubt that any elite athlete can avoid these niggles so the challenge is to manage discomfort effectively. Like TTY’s physical trainer – FAN Zan-Yu – she is a graduate of Kaohsiung Medical University. Her responsibility covers post-practice and post-match recovery. Physios tend to use manual therapies like massage to manipulate the body. This helps blood flow and relieves stiffness and we often see photos of this on Instagram as TAI Tzu Ying lies on a treatment table. She will note injury patterns, plan rest and use this information to help fine tune training routines.
FAN has been a great all-round athlete across many disciplines from swimming to frisbee but she’s mainly known as a basketball player. Her duties are centred around maintaining fitness and running the pre-match warm up. She works closely with the physio and ultimately her contribution will give TTY confidence that she has the stamina and agility to beat her rivals. I think that there is an intriguing synergy between basketball and badminton. Both need explosive power, high speed directional changes and 3D vision and both make huge demands on an athlete’s body.
TTY has a loving and supportive family who are united in support of her. When they were children, her parents took her and her sister along when they played badminton. As she got older her father used to enter her in ‘open’ tournaments when she would compete against seniors – and lose! She now credits this as a formative experience, one that taught her to accept defeat. Her father is responsible for the idiosyncratic stringing pattern we see on her racket. It’s revealing that she was treated with understanding by them when she wanted to give up training so she could have fun with her friends but they also supported her when she restarted. Her happy relationship with her Grandma is famous on Instagram.
Some fans have suggested that I add a little more about TTY’s father here. As well as being a caring and supportive dad he was pivotal in picking Coach LAI as a sparring partner in the first place so it was his shrewd judgement that initiated this fruitful alliance. Throughout her career he has been her manager; overseeing arrangements and ensuring she continues her journey in badminton in the best way possible.
Coach Lai and the team have worked in partnership to inspire and motivate her but they are only part of the story. She is adored by fans and has often commentated that she wants to win for them. Win or lose they offer unconditional support. It’s fascinating to consider how many people have walked along the path to excellence with TAI Tzu Ying.
I’d like to thank everyone who helped with information for this piece including DeeTree (@tty4ever and taitzuyingfans.wordpress.com), Shodo0702 (@Sandrali13), eeye24 (@eeye24), Jenny Day, TTY’s Facebook admin and of course BWF TV.