Chen Yufei: The return of the dragon

Shivani Naik
Chen Yufei won the China Open last November beating Ratchanok Intanon, Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara. (File)

It was literally seconds after the commentator had gleefully remarked about Tai Tzu Ying’s net shot that trickled over the net: ‘this is what you call perfection.’ The world and everyone else is so smitten by the World No. 1 with the gorgeous expansive talent, that a comeback at 17-17, having lost the opener 17-21 was par for the course. It was this perfection that China’s latest contender - the always canny and rapidly comprehensive – Chen Yufei, tamed on Sunday, opening yet another front in what is the grand battle for women’s singles in badminton.

Playing the next point, Tai Tzu was two-thirds on her way to another shot that could be described ‘perfect’: cross-court backhand flick, the placement fine-tuned with the precise click of the wrist at the net which fetches her a winner 9 times out of 10. Except Chen is so supple with her body defence that not only did she pick the shot coming at her at an angle, she also sent her own flick-save from midcourt - a defensive shot - ricocheting to the back court. Tai Tzu was left scrambling behind awkwardly, trying to return a shuttle with her back to the net.

The 18-17 point vapourised Tai Tzu’s resolve - for her best shot, high art in deception, had not only been neutralised, but also sent whizzing for a winner. A 21-17, 21-17 win for a Chinese, the first since 2014 for the nation that lost its stranglehold over women’s singles around the same time, was underlined not just with the title, but one scored over Tai Tzu who has been atop the rankings for 117 weeks now.

Tai Tzu from Chinese Taipei, a dominant player when she flick-starts her magic, has now lost to four Chinese since July 2018 – starting with the leftie He Bingjiao at the Worlds, hustler Chen Xiaoxin in Japan, the tall Gao Fangjie in China and now Chen at the high-stakes stage, in the All England final. It’s perhaps why the 21-year-old Chen credited her China team-mates and background coaching staff for helping her plot the victory, by skidding Tai Tzu off her perch in a very good week.

Best for All England

Chen Yufei won the China Open last November beating Ratchanok Intanon, Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara. But if it ever needed iteration, the best was saved for the All England, the first for players amongst equals in Super Series, where the top four seeds made it to the semis. The Chinese know how Tai Tzu’s beaten, and this last week they had Chen to execute those plans assiduously. Chen managed it on her 12th attempt choking Tai Tzu’s flair – though there’s a mix of things that set up the strangulation.

It seems tough for Indians to pull it off, but the Japanese and Chinese are managing to hem Tai Tzu’s game in, with relentless defence. Chen had lost her last seven matches to Chen in three games. In this one, she got under the Taiwanese’s skin right away. The first rally – 23 shots – Chen simply retrieved everything. A bunch of components of her game help Chen – the former junior World Champion’s anticipation keeps pace with Tai Tzu’s tricking mind, her agility is of a very high quality – helping her in the low defence, just in case she doesn’t reach the shuttle early with her anticipation. At a springy 5’6" and supremely light on her feet, Chen Yufei is also elastic-limbed on her body-defence – fending off all of Tai Tzu’s tiny, nuanced angles of height and pace.


What Saina, Sindhu can learn from Chen's win over Tai Tzu

Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have their tasks cut out if they have to get the Tai Tzu riddle off their back going into the Tokyo Games. What the Chinese proved on Sunday at Birmingham is that Tai Tzu will have to be starved off her oxygen - her flair game - if she has to be reined in. This involves retrieving everything thrown your way which is not easy given her deception wrecks havoc. The key is to anticipate better on the forecourt, because neither Saina nor Sindhu have a net-game as faultless and dependable as Chen Yufei every single day. Sindhu's agility in picking the low net shots - the lateral lunge - gets tested the most by Tai Tzu, standing in her way of prolonging rallies that most seem to annoy the Chinese Taipei girl. The Indian did score one over her at the year-ending World Tour Finals, but as happened at the Asian Games, will need to be dogged beyond a few points in the big events. Sindhu has the big game - to tower over Tai Tzu and bulldoze her way through, unlike the Japanese and Chinese who don't have that potent a whiplash finishing stroke. But she will still need to put in the hard yards in the low shuttle retrieves and shore up her body defence - errors which help Tai Tzu race away. Saina is tactically a shade better and anticipates well too - never mind the 13 straight losses - but she's never in the game on days when her court movement is even a fraction slower than the ideal. As Chen Yufei - the lightest on her feet on the circuit - showed, it's one thing to know where the shuttle's going, and quite another to get there, and then repeat for the next. Unbridled attacks can stir Tai Tzu a little, but she's going nowhere till the Indians move quick enough to pick every shuttle thrown at them. This is tougher than against Okuhara - where long rallies settle into a rhythm. Tai Tzu's rallies are short, snappy and utterly disquieting to the brain.

Since the Chinese was picking everything Tai Tzu threw at her, the 24-year-old World No. 1 was forced to go for the lines and play real fine at the net. The shuttle, as a result, kept drifting wide and being snubbed at the net. It was, of course, the string of errors that opened up a 14-5 lead for Chen, but every error came from Tai Tzu’s growing impatience at her pretty, dazzling game not yielding returns she’s accustomed to them fetching. The back-breaker for Tai Tzu was when her crosses at the net were picked precisely by Chen and she was literally forced to retreat, chasing after her deep backhand corner – mostly in vain.

Tai Tzu, a two-time All England champ, was going for her third. Chen Yufei, as if guarding that record of three consecutive title held by two Chinese (Ye Zhaoying and Xie Xingfang), was determined to not let her opponent get there. Standing a step behind the mid-court, Chen knew she could trust her lunges and assured net-play to pick anything in the fore-court. Tai Tzu snuck in a few cross-drops and a couple of net-chords and even had the better of a rapid net-exchange, as she levelled at 16-16.

For far too long now, Tai Tzu has got her followers to believe that she can close out – never mind what has preceded. But Chen Yufei would pull out the big gun – her rolling round the head smash, and then accelerate her hand-speed to reach set point. Inching closer to the mid-game break, Tai Tzu’s frustration at being routinely thwarted had started annoying her, and though she stayed in the game till 17-17, not too far from her perfection, Chen Yufei had scrambled her mind enough to once again deny her the end-game ascendancy. Chen Yufei’s ability to pick everything and slash at her flair, ghost her off the points, gave China its first All England title in five years, and signalled the return of the former domineers.