What is it about Tai Tzu Ying that bothers Saina Nehwal so much? Shivani Naik dissects the game of the player from Chinese Taipei to come up with an answer
Tai Tzu Ying’s demeanour on a badminton court is languorous enough to drag you into a daze, but there’s all of the mystery and the mischief in her strokes to snap you out of that stupor that she’s lulling you into with her floating movements and childish quirks.
Offsetting the image of being a feared opponent, the 21-year-old from Chinese Taipei often sticks her tongue out in response to errors.
She seldom overwhelms with power or aggression — that’s in the realms of the Chinese or Carolina Marin, the Spaniard. She’ll rarely out-last an opponent or collapse in a heap of exhaustion heroically having played the 70-plus minute marathons — those are for the Japanese and Sung Ji Hyun, the ever-retrieving Korean.
But Tai Tzu has run up a chunky 6-0 score against Saina Nehwal in their last six face-offs — the Indian trails her 5-9 in career head-to-heads — and is turning into the start of a thudding headache for India’s top shuttler. And just like that — having not lost to Saina Nehwal the last three years — the 5’3 shuttler has started looking formidable and a bit of a lingering dread for India’s top badminton player.
Tai Tzu Ying’s not the stuff of nightmares for her opponents (it’s hardly a marquee clash between World No.8 and No.9 currently) and her name might not evoke the same awe as the Chinese do, but having handed six consecutive losses to Nehwal means answers must be found to this riddle with greater urgency leading upto the Olympics than what the Indian would desire. The devil is in the details and the details lie in deception.
The latest reversal for Nehwal came at Malaysia last week, though the Indian is still to hit peak fitness and would’ve hardly stretched in the lead up to the Rio Olympics trying to down an opponent whose stay on the court resembles a rollicking caper than an intense struggle in which Nehwal revels. However, the 21-15, 21-16 loss in 40 minutes at the All England quarterfinals where Tai Tzu bamboozled the Indian with all her strokes ranging from eccentric to artistic, might be a good starting point to begin to comprehend the problem she poses for the Indian.
“Tai Tzu is not out of reach for Saina and can definitely be beaten,” former international Aparna Popat, says. “But Saina is clearly uncomfortable against her. It’s a bit of a block, and there’ll always be certain players you don’t enjoy playing against and want to obviously avoid in the draws at Olympics. Tai Tzu is like that for Saina,” she adds.
“Deception is unpredictable. In Tai Tzu’s game, there’s no set pattern and it’s not practiced. She’s free-spirited and plays whatever she feels like,” Popat explains. Nehwal, typically, is more assured against opponents who she’s studied before or prepared for prior to facing them. The Taiwanese girl’s whimmy, impulsive game boggles her, even at the best of times. When still not in ace fitness, it can definitely wrong-foot and befuddle.
Player-turned-coach Aravind Bhat who sparred with Tai Tzu as part of the same badminton league team three seasons ago dissects the anatomy of the famed deception, explaining why she’s so tricky and tough to read. “She’ll make an opponent work harder with the jerky movements. We call it ‘fake shots’ or ‘jhatka movements’,” he says. Such shots are not particularly high on pace, but it’s about holding them for a split second before the wrist works its magic and forces the opponent into indecision over where it could be hit. “You think it’ll be hit deep, but it lands in front, and when you think it’ll come to the forecourt, it loops back. It demands a lot of back-and-front movement of responding in a very small time gap,” he explains.
The last two times Nehwal’s played Tai Tzu she hasn’t been 100 per cent fit — that’s both her strength as well as match fitness, given she was coming out of an injury and recovery layoff. “Fitness is very crucial here, you need stamina for quick reactions,” he adds. “She’s recovered very well to play at highest level after the injury break, and she’s not in any discomfort. Good the injury’s gone, but it takes time to be at the highest of highest levels. She will peak for Olympics, perfect time to launch her best response against the likes of Tai Tzu,” he adds.
It’s not a riposte that can be executed when court movements are ginger, and none will blame Nehwal if she’s still circumspect and cautious. “She’s looking good fitness wise, but you need to be a little fitter than fittest to deal with such players,” Popat says. Answers lie in consistency — in running around and picking every shuttle.
“If Saina can scramble, get back that extra shuttle, pick the flicks and stretch the rally, then that’s a start. Improving reflexes and movement is the counter,” she adds, even as Bhat reiterates that when extremely fit — agile and with smooth court movements (like how the Chinese counter Tai Tzu) — Nehwal will be able to beat Tai Tzu with much more ease than the banana peel opponent that she’s now become.
Understanding the psychology of someone like Tai Tzu with her prodigious talent in variety of strokes and wrist wizardry also becomes important. “Tricky players love it when their shots get going, they enjoy the effect it has on opponents,” Bhat explains. It’s almost like a magic show, where the spellcaster thrives on how his sorcery can wow the spectators.
“But if you can take their shots, pick up everything, and ruin their rhythm, then their graph dips low quickly,” he adds. The disappointment of watching a bag of tricks fail to dazzle can start annoying such players and unsettle them soon enough.
Deception loves an adoring audience, and depriving these enchanting practitioners of their magic by simply denying them winners plays havoc with their rhythm and confidence. The fact that such players tend to be over-indulgent, extremely aware of their latent talent and a tad in love with their own beautiful games also means they don’t quite fancy routine, bread-butter exchanges and attritional rallies that underline sheer labour and hard work.
A Tai Tzu will almost demand that she wins points within the first few exchanges when she unleashes one trick shot after another, and the longer she is denied, greater the chances of breaking her. Starving her of the ‘effect’ by responding with ceaseless retrieving can quickly crumble her resolve, and shred the script.
It’s not often that the inscrutable Saina Nehwal looks as nonplussed as she did when going down to Tai Tzu at the All England or her composure comes unzipped, simply trying to read her opponent. She wasn’t just thrown by drops masking smashes (and smashes that start with a hint of drops) and mystified by strokes that mucked up her radar in length and direction, or how Tai Tzu was rattling her with teasing flicks from the net.
But even factoring in her sub-par fitness at the meet early in the season and the post-injury sluggishness, Tai Tzu held a mesmerising edge over her, one Nehwal couldn’t shake off. Standing across the net from a talent like Tai Tzu means being ready for that split second when you decide to either move front or back.
“In the beginning it’s tough — to move two times, you need to be fit. But once you break the barrier and start picking them you can out-trick them,” Bhat says. There’s also the legit ways to delay a match – like, the extra second pause when serving. “If things don’t go as per their wish, on their pace, they are unsettled. It’s a mental game,” he reiterates.
Saina Nehwal’s bolstered her own repertoire of ‘jhatka’ shots (jerk strokes) in the last few years, though it’s still a task to read an opponent execute the same tricks. And while coach Vimal Kumar or national coach P Gopichand – himself a master of such deceptives – would be canny enough to chalk out plans, Nehwal will need to execute the retorts to gain confidence and free herself of doubts that the Taiwanese’s game puts her in and not remain susceptible.
While Nehwal could take confidence from all the prior times she’s beaten Tai Tzu, the present challenge will need sparring against similar styled players – it’s a rare breed and very tough to simulate.
“The coach will need to simulate this in training,” Bhat says. Now, typically, preparing to play a Chinese would entail high pace and multi-feeding or for Carolina Marin would mean getting used to the left-handed angles, but simulating Tai Tzu is an altogether different proposition. “High pace can be simulated. For high power, she can simply spar against boys. Tai Tzu’s are the ‘weaker’ shots of girls, except laced with a wild degree of deception,” Bhat says.
Former international Trupti Murgunde comes closest to this style, though Tai Tzu’s operating on a different plane of class and calibre currently. Saina’ll need to find someone like her and that’ll be very tough in India. In countries like Korea and China, teeming with shuttlers, finding such sparring isn’t tough, but replicating that in practice is a challenge that awaits Vimal Kumar.
Thai Intanon Ratchanok’s another player whose game is filled with tricks though Saina Nehwal enjoys a healthy 6-4 lead over her. “Deception can unsettle you a lot, though no two players have the same deception,” Aparna Popat explains. However, all of her losses against Ratchanok have come in straight sets – and if a trend were to be spotted, it is that the supremely talented Thai too can boast of the ability to flummox the Indian completely on her good day.
Unlike Tai Tzu who operates like a free spirit, unfettered by gameplans and totally instinctive — impulsive even — about what she’s about to do next, Ratchanok — equally talented, if not more — is a touch more consistent. “Ratchanok has a little more pattern and is predictable than Tai Tzu, so Saina doesn’t struggle as much against her,” Popat says. It should help Nehwal that the Taipese is extremely erratic and prone to meltdowns and implosions. She’s added some maturity to her game now than when she was 18 and as such will need Nehwal to put in more effort, she reckons.
A dogged scramble early in the match where Tai Tzu is not allowed to revel in watching the blooming of her flair game, should be the first target. “As Saina nears the Olympics, she’ll improve her reflexes and movements and then it’ll get easier,” Popat assures. Next week at the Badminton Asian Championship, it’ll be the other Indian PV Sindhu who could run into Tai Tzu early on. With a vertical advantage of almost 8 inches, Sindhu can easily kill the shuttle if it starts going short, but Nehwal will need to draw from her deep reserves of long rallies and strong fitness if she has to overturn this recent run of reverses.
When Tai Tzu plays Saina Nehwal it’s a straight face-off between talent and tenacity, for talent has looked intimidating these last three years since the Swiss Open in March 2013 when Nehwal last won.
For Nehwal, it’s a battle to prove that good ‘ol determination can trump what’s divinely god-given.