A lot of badminton players can get you rooting for them to win – get you to snarl, scowl, scream and vicariously live out their aggression. The smash – finished with a pumped fist – can get you glowering at their opponent on TV screens or at Gachibowli or Siri Fort. Two women, though, evoked something else when watching Sunday’s All England final: Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon made you fervently wish that the final went to a decider – no matter who won. It wasn’t the pumped fists but creative wrists that left you wishing for more magic.
Belligerence has its admirers – the Olympics final between PV Sindhu and Carolina Marin found itself a record audience. But the All England – much lower in stakes and the strain it can put on everyone – proved less hostile and more wholesome badminton. Two of the world’s most talented stroke-makers, Tai Tzu of Chinese Taipei and Ratchanok of Thailand, jammed together, and didn’t disappoint a packed house after organisers turned women’s singles into the showstopper of the day – scheduling it as the finale, while even Lee Chong Wei played on a rare undercard.
When Ratchanok deftly slowed down a rally – like you would control the pulse with deep breaths – getting the shuttle to do exactly what she needed, with not a wand but a racquet, the demand for a decider grew in decibels. Badminton routinely gets its winners and losers, but this last weekend, the sport was unfurling an entire tapestry of deception. Tai Tzu was a deserving 21-14, 22-20 winner, but only because she out-dazzled arguably the most talented shuttler of the last decade.
Tai Tzu is instinctive, Ratchanok not as bold, but both can give the impression of holding the shuttle mid-air while waiting for the opponent to commit to a side to retrieve, and then hit it in the opposite direction. You don’t need slow-mo cameras, these two are special effects unto themselves. It also involves athleticism in anticipating where the shuttle will come, to go park yourself there and call the shots – literally, so Tai Tzu is a leaner, fitter marvel than what she was at the Olympics going down to Sindhu in an early round.
The two traded in deception: they played at least a dozen shots with imperceptible changes to their wrist action. Tai Tzu had crosscourts at the net (one off the backhand which will grow into a wristy monster in coming years), and half-smashes, drops and lifts – all of which you’d reckon would land in one part of the court but which would head to another. Ratchanok dealt in pushes and constructing rallies where she could alternate pace and shift gears multiple times within a point. Smashes struck with power can whip up screams, but these strokes sucked in breath and made you whistle.
Anticipation and flair
A sight for sore, jaded eyes – after watching the eternal retrieving or power smashing like the baseline power-hitting in tennis – Tai Tzu’s is a game of magnetic control on the shuttle: Easy movements, a varied repertoire of strokes to summon – an area where she puts Sindhu and Marin in shade – anticipation and flair. She and Ratchanok look for creative solutions to find gaps on courts.
Men’s singles has long fallen into a pattern – fast, faster to strong, strongest, Chong Wei’s speed and Lin Dan’s steady play making us wistful about the time when Taufik Hidayat gave into indulgent urges of that elastic backhand. Chinese southpaw Zhao Jianhua was known to jump high – and no one could tell how he would strike mid-air deceptively and where the bird would fly. In India, Nandu Natekar possessed tricks, though Suresh Goel was famed for his touch artistry. Trupti Murgunde had natural flair for deception, but little success. Chong Wei and Lin Dan and now the beastly gentle giant Chen Long used to be badminton’s poster-boys, but the last two years have seen the emergence of women’s singles players from at least seven countries – Taipei, Thailand, Japan, Spain, India and Korea – that pull in spectators, even as China recoup from a slide that’s yielded no player of exception. 2000 Sydney women’s singles champion Gong Zhichao – not too tall, built like a doll – won with this illusory flair, but the women’s game too had gotten too regimented and fitness-based till Tai Tzu Ying started to win.
Those who’ve played alongside her in the franchise shuttle say she remains a carefree individual, and still given to laughing off the screwed-eyed aggro and intensity of modern-day champions. At 18-20 in Set 2, she chuckled. She’s lost matches in the past playing this style, and though her consistency is boggling since Olympics, it remains to be seen if she can turn talent to medal in Tokyo.
Tai Tzu and Ratchanok are sprinkling on badminton what Roger Federer brought to tennis. A moment of magic – never mind the competitive harshness of the context – the wins, losses.
So, deception chugs along – Argentine hockey player Gonzalo Peillat tweaks his hip movements and shifts body weight late when drag flicking to flummox goalies. In cricket, Zaheer Khan and James Anderson tweaked the grips slightly differently for their oh-so-slow knuckle balls, and football has its Panenka dinks – even if Master Pirlo is gone. Birmingham had Tai Tzu Ying as winner last Sunday, when badminton’s sorcery came alive.