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.
Inspired by the recent BWF series I started thinking…
Vision: TAI Tzu Ying
TTY’s creative genius is Box Office Gold. Everyone wants to see that backhand reverse slice straight drop, especially when they least expect it. Her bedrock is superb technical skills blended with fitness. The cocktail of flair, bravery and total self-belief is irresistable. Because her shots are so unpredictable she stops rivals from anticipating her moves and this give her a tremendous competitive edge. Any player who nurtures aspirations to get to the very top has to be inspired by TAI’s style.
Explosive Power: Carolina Marin
Marin’s superb athleticism blended with her attacking style makes her a formidable opponent. She smashes, lunges and kills with venomous force. She blazes on court; once she seizes the momentum of the game 6 or 7 points are in her pocket in the blink of an eye. She is a rowdy, disruptive, noisy adversary who has harnassed her passion to carry her to the top of the sport.
Win-Ability: Misaki Matsutomo
There’s just something about Misaki Matsutomo – she seems able to force a victory, to break opponent’s will to win even when they are in a commanding position. Of course the best example of this was the WD Rio Olympic final in 2016. On the surface she looks mild but underneath she has an iron will. Her instinctive response to danger is defiance; at 19-16 behind in the Gold medal match something was unleashed from deep inside her. Her clever movement, trust in her partner and dominance at the net saw her at the top of the podium. I’d love her to reach these heights in her XD career.
Accuracy: Ratchanok Intanon
May has a lot in common with TTY in terms of the technical quality of her strokes and she can execute some of the most breathtaking shots one would see on a court. However, sometimes having the ability to land a shuttle on the line is a blessing and a curse. Under pressure, and losing patience Ratchanok will often adopt a ‘death or glory’ approach. Instead of playing percentage badminton and simply keeping the rally going she will push up a level and try for the point. When it works it is majestic and a joy to watch.
Stamina: Nozomi Okuhara
Her style of play has long rallies at its core so her endurance is second-to-none. However, this is a too simplistic view of this brilliant player. She is fleet-footed and agile around the court with excellent flexibility. She is clever and has superb technical skills although sometimes I think she delays finishing off a rally for too long – the opposite of Ratchanok. I really respect her strength of focus in her pursuit of Tokyo Gold at a very tough time for the sport. On a personal level, she is adorable. When BirdJapan play team competitions she can be spotted on the sidelines leading the cheering for compatriots, and her all-round grace under pressure make her a very special person.
Potential: AN Se Young
In a couple of years time ASY could dominate the world scene. For now, shes a tournament random variable: often able to vanquish more illustrious opponents but not yet able to consistently reach finals weekend. I’d like her to work on the ability to shock. For now she has great anticipation and good all-round skill but she is quite reactive – to get to the next level I want to see effective shots that I don’t expect and better stamina over the duration of a competition.
It’s been amusing to try and build my Women’s Gold medal player, but there’s no doubt that some skills will outweigh others in tournament conditions in a drifty stadium. I didn’t include some of my favourite players: Saina’s intelligence and will to win, Sindhu’s power, Yuki’s consistency and Greysia’s defence but in the end this was just for fun. I’m sure you can suggest people I should have included – feel free to use the comments option.
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.
Shock withdrawals, shock exits and shock reinstatements; January’s tournaments were never dull. Unless of course, you happen to be a player quarantined in the Bangkok Novotel for 20 hours a day with chicken for dinner again. Indomie products were suddenly currency and some athletes were incentivised by the prospect of a year’s supply of the world’s best instant snack.
This is my look at the three Thailand tournaments. I’m not pretending that I’m unbiased, or that I can cover everything but I hope my highlights remind you what a cracking few weeks fans have just enjoyed.
HK Vittinghus’ January was epic. Initially on the reserve list he had the ambition to gamble and start the long trip to Thailand from Denmark with no guarantee of a game. Events moved in his favour when the Japanese team turned back at Tokyo airport following Momota’s positive test. His story stuttered at the Yonex Thailand Open when he lost to compatriot Gemke in R1 but the following week saw him excel and become the focus of fierce support from fans in Indonesia who had realised that the further he progressed the more likely Anthony Ginting was to qualify for the World Tour Finals. Some wild incentives involving Indomie noodles were offered. Through very intense games he found a route to to the final and a match against Axelsen. Along the way, his results meant that Anthony Ginting did qualify. Axelsen powered through the encounter but HK can be proud of his month’s work.
Astonishingly there were triple champions in MD and XD and double champions in MS and WS which suggests that finding the winning formula fast in the impact arena offered big rewards. I think that people with good underlying fitness combined with the resilience and drive to make the most of opportunities were at an advantage. Fatigue – mental and physical – was a factor for some as there was little breathing space between each tournament.
The Danish men controlled the courts all month – I’ve already mentioned Vittinghus but the fluctuations in the balance of power between Axelsen and Andersen is fascinating and I’m really looking forward to see who has the upper hand in March. Andersen prevented his fellow Dane from a clean sweep of titles by some tactics at the World Tour Finals that some found controversial. Not me. I felt he was strategically very smart. It’s unfair to reduce his astute strategy to his ‘easy’ concession of the second set. Throughout the match he refused to give Viktor pace from smashes to feed off and this was a key element in his win.
There were times when we saw sublime standards from Anthony Ginting and I was disappointed that he didn’t get to a final. His challenge is to stay with a game at the death. CHOU Tien Chen consistently made the semi-final of all three tournaments but somehow just lacked the resources to finish a match off.
Carolina Marin – like Viktor – completely dominated her sector in the first two tournaments; bulldozing TAI Tzu Ying aside as she triumphed in both of their finals . At the season’s finale she was prevented from making it a hat trick by a tactically astute performance by TTY who finally managed to eliminate errors when it came to the crucial stage of the game. This link will take you to my article that discusses TTY’s win in more detail https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/02/02/tai-tzu-ying-genius/
I’m often dazzled by Ratchanok Intanon to the extent that I don’t give enough attention to the other athletes in the Thai team. Pornpawee Chochuwong can look back over her matches with a lot of satisfaction. We saw her potential twelve months ago when she beat Marin in the final of the Spain Masters and it turns out that that was not a fluke. At the end of a hard month she was a semi-finalist at the World Tour Finals and posed a threat to every player. AN Se Young also caught my eye: she got to three semi finals but couldn’t quite push through to a podium finish.
A deserved hat-trick of titles for the home pair Dechapol Puavaranukroh & Sapsiree Taerattanachai (Bass/Popor). They have been on the brink of good results for a while and this month they competed with gutsy resilience and strong self-belief. They are a wonderful team with excellent mobility, stamina and racket skills.
“This is my reward for nine months of hard work and dedication”
Sapsiree Taerattanachai courtesy BWF Media press office
This success could see them start to dominate their sector.
I’ve always been a big fan of GreyAp and so I was beyond thrilled to watch their emotional win in the YTO. Soon their journey together will end. I’m delighted that they have used these tournaments to showcase their best style: Greysia smiling and Apri roaring on to victory. Well played girls!
The Taiwanese duo – LEE Yang and WANG Chi-Lin – really enhanced their reputations throughout January. Not only did they win all three competitions but their humble self-deprecating comments endeared them to watching fans. Playing to their strengths they used power and muscle non-stop to overcome rivals. They were too fast and furious even for Ahsan and Setiawan to tame and no-one beats the Dads by accident. On the subject of the Dads; once again these two gnarly warriors battled through adversity and showed why they are admired worldwide. Here is my look at Ahsan’s gritty fight to stay in the game when he was struggling with an injury https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/01/20/mohammad-ahsan-player-of-the-day-total-legend/
Finally…Coach Kim, Happiness and Hope
The effervescent Coach Kim popped up in Thailand with the Korean team. Her energetic style radiates confidence and is irresistible. During the interval she seems able to outline any observations to her team in about ten frenetic cheerful seconds then she calmly sits down whilst the opposition coach remains standing.
It was an uplifting few weeks. Back to back tournaments undoubtedly stretched athletes but they still delivered some breathtaking matches full of skill. I think they gave supporters hope that there is a return to regular badminton just around the corner.
The bombshell word ‘retirement’ was spoken by TAI tzu Ying about a year ago and a shudder passed through her millions of fans. Seven months into lockdown with no big tournament since YAE I’m beginning to understand what the badminton landscape will look like without this extraordinary player and I don’t like it. Jaw dropping visionary play blended with virtuoso racket skills is a mix made in badminton heaven so a tournament without the chance to witness a reverse slice straight backhand drop executed by the Queen suddenly loses a little glitter.
In her most recent interview on Badminton Unlimited TTY offers some reassurance to her supporters. She is certain that she will continue to compete until next season ends and then she will mull over her options. This means that we can enjoy the anticipation of watching her participate in her third Olympics. I would love to see her on that podium in Japan, alongside some of my other favourites like Ratchanok, Nozomi or Akane. Imagine a Gold medal match between May and Tzu Ying; this would be a version of paradise for me and lots of other fans.
Coach Lai has been smart in keeping training fresh. TTY has mentioned before that she doesn’t go out ‘much’. Pictures on Instagram frequently show her enjoying being outdoors and I’ve often joked that she should work for the Taiwan tourist board when she retires. The beautiful scenery around her gives a spectacular backdrop to a bike ride or hike with her training partners. Without the intensity of a jam-packed tournament calendar she should be able to address any niggling injuries, and enjoy a fitness programme with an altered aim. I think that the focus will have been adjusted because she will not have to be on a (literal and metaphorical) treadmill to get prepared for next week’s match. This is why we have seen her enjoying cross training and sports like beach football and boxing. The emphasis on agility and flexibility remains but there will be interesting cross-fertilisation from other sports. It’s a good time to review technique and strategies but most of all this is a chance to emotionally refresh and rest intelligently.
The playing career of an elite player is really quite short. Movement has to be explosive with instant changes in direction and this can trigger severe pressure on knees and arms. Press conferences after finals are often conducted with the winners pressing ice-packs to their shoulders. The emotional cost of competition can be challenging too; stepping onto court with the hopes of your nation upon your shoulders is not easy; especially when supporters don’t see the hours of sweat in training. Added to this are the constant demands of the tournament schedule: international travel may seem glamourous but an endless landscape of airports and hotels can quickly dull the excitement.
We have three tournaments planned for Thailand in January 2021 with exacting covid protocols insisted upon by the Thai authorities. Quarantines, regular swab tests and temperature checks blended with stringent hygiene requirements and social bubbles should give reassurance to many but perception of risk is diverse. It’s impossible to predict where we will be in the trajectory of this pandemic by then.
Covid has annihilated the tournament schedule and it has given many athletes time to pause and reflect on their career path. The motivation to train without a reason is hard to maintain so it is reassuring to see that Tai Tzu Ying can still get up early in the morning, leave her house at 7am and start training at 8.30. This is the mark of a true champion. The players who can keep their enthusiasm and focus amidst the crisis will be the ones who return stronger. I long to watch her next game.
No competitive badminton worldwide since March and I’ve reached the point where I’d be happy just to watch TAI Tzu Ying open a new tube of Victor shuttles; albeit in a new and unexpected way. And so it was with a sense of glee that I heard that the Sports Administrators in Taiwan had made the shrewd decision to arrange a Mock Olympics for their qualified athletes.
All sportspeople need the grind of training to be freshened up at times otherwise they become stale. The challenge was to find suitable opponents to play Badminton’s world #1. The tournament needed to be a worthwhile venture; something to keep TTY on her toes and give her something to think about.
Sensationally they decided to pit TTY against male players. Suddenly this became news all around the world.
“Playing like a girl means you’re a badass”
In July a video was uploaded on TTY’s Instagram of some sparring against HSUEH Hsuan Yi. In the clip we see her scoring points with pinpoint accuracy down the tramlines. Her deception skills mean that she can wrong foot him at times. Crucially we do not observe his power. I’m not sure if this is because her strategy is based around denying him the chnce to smash or if for the purposes of the training session he has retired that shot. He is a very good player: six times Taiwan National MS Champion with a highest world ranking of 31. This is a tough training regime.
It is physiologically impossible for a woman to compete equally against a man in sport. At least, it is nearly impossible. Fans of 1970’s Women’s Tennis will remember the incomparable Billie-Jean King beating Bobby Riggs over three sets in a supposed triumph against male chauvenism but this isn’t the same situation at all. Here it seems that we have male and female badminton players collaborating for the good of TAI Tzu Ying and for Taiwan’s hopes for an Olympic medal.
Round 1: TTY against LIN Chia Hsuan
The game begins with TAI Tzu Ying allowed an 8 point advantage per set. It’s clear that she wants to keep him moving around – she keeps probing his deep backhand. This is the foundation of her strategy, she is trying to build shot sequences to find gaps and to test his endurance. She often scores down his backhand tramline and she takes the first set 21-19. There were times when she was falling into the trap of aiming right for the lines and giving herself no margin of error – he did profit from this.
The second set goes to LIN 21-18. When he gets an opportunity to use his power TTY can usually handle his shot; I think this is down to her great technique allied to fast reflexes and clever anticipation. When he gets through her defence it often seems to be a smash combination of left/right. He is also varying the pace and trying to keep the pressure on. She can’t quite cover the court. The net exchanges are very interesting, both of them executing some beautiful shots but a few errors from TTY give him points.
The third set is a fascinating passage of play and is, I think, extraordinarily revealing about TAI Tzu Ying. It’s clear she wants to win. She is grazing her knees while retrieving wide shots and goes into the interval 11- -1 up. Play resumes. A reactive midcourt backhand kill gets the score to 15-5. LIN is making mistakes and my feeling is that he is tired. The Queen wins the set (&therefore the match) 21-11. I think that it was her superior stamina and resilience that carried her through.
Round 2: TTY against TSAI Chien Hao
A shorter, 2 set match which TAI Tzu Ying loses. In this contest she is only given a 3 point head-start and it’s not really enough. TSAI Chien Hao is a lively opponent – not known at all on the international circuit – but by all accounts a player who spars with the national team and who is still attending University.
Despite the loss we still see some beautiful shots from TTY. In Set 1 a couple of lovely disguised XC drops. Characteristically she also keeps retrying her gentle XC net reply – really just a caress of the shuttle – until she succeeds in scoring from it after a couple of fails. At 15-16 she tried a fast, flick serve but this highlighted the difficulty with playing against a man; it was just smashed mercilessly back. Possibly my favourite shot of the whole tournament was at 2-0 during a rally when TCH tried a disguised shot at the net, it wrong footed TTY but she turned, stuck out her racket and created a magical xc reply that just gently dropped over the net. Absolute genius.
By Set 2 both players are tiring. There are mistakes interwoven with astonishing skills from the Queen but she cannot get any sort of foothold in the match as TCH’s progress to 21 points is unstoppable.
Men’s Singles has some crucial differences to the women’s game and it was interesting to consider that TTY would not really be able to use her high serve in these two games. This meant that she had to alter elements of her playing style; unrelenting pressure at the net upon her low serve was potentially an issue. The other noteworthy observation is the length of the games. The advantage TTY gained from her first male opponent starting 8 points behind should be balanced by the fact that this tended to mean each game had more points to contest. Her concentration mid-match can sometimes waver and so these games would show that this is no longer a problem.
This was a very enjoyable sequence of games for all TTY fans. Of course it offered a somewhat artificial situation but it was a lively competition that reminded us all what we’ve been missing since Tzu Ying’s triumph at the All England. Congratulations to all the competitors and thanks to the organisers.
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.
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.
In badminton Taiwan is a small nation that hits big. From a population of roundabout 24 million people there is perhaps a chance of three Olympic badminton medals. Of course, the tournament in Tokyo will test the best; there are so many battles between now and that podium place it is fascinating to consider who could write their own Olympic legend.
TAI Tzu Ying
The wonderful TAI Tzu Ying lights up every tournament. She sublimates sport into art; there is no limit to her creative imagination. The fusion of an unpredictable, inventive vision with brilliant technical skills is at the heart of TAI Tzu Ying’s strategies, but it will take more than this to seize glory in Tokyo.
In Thailand in January she was beaten by Marin in two finals. To her credit she was not crushed – in the third final between the two of them she triumphed. Her inner spirit and motivation to compete are a significant part of her emotional armoury. Top level badminton is not glamorous: after years of sweat, pain and criticism athletes earn the chance to endure sweat, pain and criticism on the Olympic stage. I’m confident she has the psychological strength to face up to the challenges thrown at her on court at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.
Maybe TTY has lost a second or two of speed across the ground as she has got older but recently she has offset that with patience, and focused patience will give her a massive advantage over her rivals. Restraint – the ability to judge calmly when the time is right in a rally to commit to the winning shot – is surely the characteristic that divides great players from good ones. TAI’s not-so-secret weapon is her deceptive play and this can disrupt her opponents flow.
Can she return to Taiwan with a medal? Yes, of course! Of all the Taiwanese athletes she travels with the highest expectations on her shoulders. The women’s singles competition is going to be fierce, fellow contenders like Nozomi and Carolina have the experience of medalling in Rio 2016 and they know better what it takes to succeed in front of millions of people. But TTY has the advantage of a formidable coaching team and rock-solid family support – she has all the skills to fulfill her potential and win.
CHOU Tien Chen & WANG Tzu Wei
In men’s singles CHOU Tien Chen is an ever-present at tournament finals with his ebullient physio Victoria Kao courtside. In the early rounds of the World Tour Finals back in January he beat a couple of the players who could block his path to an Olympic medal: LEE Zii Jia & Anthony Ginting. However he lost twice to Viktor Axelsen and that also reminds me of his campaign at the 2020 All England; where he seemed to lose his focus against the Dane and made too many errors. If he comes up against Axelsen it’s important that he doesn’t give him speed to feed off but tries to disrupt the Danes equilibrium.
CTC famously trains and competes without a coach which is uncommon for any elite athlete. This unorthodox approach has liberated him to take responsibility for his development and I think if I wanted one skill to be fine-tuned it would be his killer instinct. Sometimes, when he has the upper hand in a match he is not brutal enough to finish off his opponent and they stage a recovery. He’s at his best when the tempo of the match is under his control and he can feed off errors.
WANG Tzu Wei also enjoyed some great wins at the start of the WTF, notably in three sets against Kidambi and a straight sets victory over the eventual champion Anders Antonsen – losing to him in a return match in the semi-final. At Taiwan’s ‘Mock Olympics’ last year he was beaten in three sets by CTC and he needs to find another level to genuinely be in with a chance of a medal in Tokyo.
I think in the men’s competition it is hard to look beyond Momota but if one of these two get early momentum they could mount a solid campaign. CHOU Tien Chen is the equal of any of the other competitors. His success will depend upon being focused, cutting errors and sometimes just staying with a game. If he can do this and maintain his self belief he could be bringing a medal home.
WANG Chi-Lin/LEE Yang
These two enjoyed a dazzling run of form in Thailand at the start of this year; they carried off all three titles in a clean sweep of the Men’s Doubles competitions. Most notably they beat Indonesian legends Ahsan & Setiawan for gold at the World Tour Finals. So how will they fare in the Olympics against the best that Indonesia, Japan and China can throw at them? I think the draw will be all-important as it’s inevitable they will have tough matches right from the start. It’s hard to expect them to beat the Minions or Endo/Watanabe but their muscular, ferocious approach can be hard to contain. If they get a bit of luck, and carry on their momentum from January they could have an outside chance of Bronze.
I’d love to see one of these players win their nation’s first badminton Olympic medal. It’s a wonderful achievement for any athlete to compete at an Olympics and Taiwan’s shuttlers can travel to Japan with confidence in their ability and with high hopes.