Tai Tzu Ying’s resurrection promises exciting times before Paris Olympics

There are not many players in world badminton who can make an Olympic champion look that ordinary. Tai Tzu Ying can, and that’s how she made Tokyo Olympics champion Chen Yu Fei look on the court on Sunday while producing a masterclass in deceptive badminton in the final of the BWF India Open here.

Chinese Taipei shuttler Tai Tzu Ying plays a shot during the women’s singles final of Yonex Sunrise India Open(ANI)

From the time the Taiwan player won her first point with a beautiful backhand flick at the net to wrapping up the match with a disguised drop from the back, it was a Tai special being played out in front of her fans who came to watch her magical stroke-making and went back satiated with joy and relief.

It is difficult to count how many times her Chinese opponent was wrong-footed by the sheer class of Tai, who won 21-16, 21-12. Reverse slices, drops, lifts, clears, and even a gentle push of the shuttle landed on Chen’s side of the court, tantalisingly close yet far enough to not be sent back. At times, Chen was left to just admire the special powers of her opponent; haplessly watching the shuttle kiss the line or fall in a direction opposite to where she had expected it to arrive. Every shot had a ‘Tai Tzu Ying flight’ to it.

Throughout the week in Delhi, Tai played fluently, not dropping a game in the five matches of the Super 750 event. In the final, she seemed to have found her mesmerising touch, which had made her the most deceptive player on the world tour. Now, riding a second wind Tai has found at 29, especially with the Paris Olympics in sight, it is a build up towards an exciting period in women’s singles.

After a comparatively subdued 2023 by her standards, Tai is getting back to business. The first sign towards resurgence was winning the World Tour Finals in December. This week, it was her second successive final, having lost to young Korean An Seyong in the Malaysia Open last Sunday.

For someone who has reigned as world No.1 the longest — 214 weeks — has three All England titles and an Asian Games gold, Tai is yet to win an Olympic or world title, much like Malaysian legend Lee Chong Wei. The Holy Grail seems to be keeping Tai going.

There will be quite a few aspirants to the women’s crown in Paris. Chen, who stopped Tai on her tracks in an epic Olympic final in Tokyo, is one of them. The big favourite to emerge is Korean phenomenon An. Such was her domination of the world tour last year that she swept all the big titles, winning a staggering nine of the 11 finals she featured in, including the All England and World Championships. Currently, she is a cut above the rest in women’s singles. At 21, she is marked out as a legend in the making.

The world No.1 unlocked the Tai mystery like nobody else, beating her eight times (11-3 head-to-head record) last year. The reason An has been so successful against Tai is her faster pace that hurries the latter into strokes and forces errors, and her solid defence. Tai can draw her opponents to play at a pace she is comfortable with and manoeuvre the shuttle the way she wants. An, an equally deceptive player, has a wide repertoire of shots, and with her clever injection of pace, is a great counter to Tai’s crafty game.

A Tai-An semi-final clash did not happen at the India Open as the Korean is struggling with a knee injury. Playing with a heavily strapped knee, she retired midway through her quarterfinal match against Yeo Jia Min, who then lost to Tai.

An, 21, and Chen, 25, have age and legs to last marathon battles compared to their more seasoned opponents, be it Tai, or 2021 and 2022 world champion Akane Yamaguchi who is one of the best retrievers and can still grind down opponents, or Carolina Marin, who has resurrected her career after two knee surgeries and looks hungry.

The sheer grit the Spaniard has shown in returning to such a high level after injuries is an inspiring tale. At the World Championships last year, she was a class apart, beating Tai and Akane in straight games before falling to An in the final. It was three-time world champion Marin’s fourth World Championships medal, making her the most successful women’s singles player. Marin, 30, is sure to go all out to repeat her 2016 Rio Olympic gold performance.

The one player who is yet to show up so far is PV Sindhu, 28, who is fighting the biggest slump of her great career. There is still time and the two-time Olympic medallist knows when to strike big. Before the Tokyo Olympics, Sindhu was in a similar crisis but surprisingly found her range to win a bronze medal to add to her Rio silver.

Sindhu can never be written off, especially when the Olympics is barely six months away.

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