Occasionally, just occasionally in the history of a particular sport, a player comes along who not only beats all comers, but strides the playing arena like a colossus, displaying sustained dominance along with impressive longevity.
China's Lin Dan has been one such player, who has comprehensively dominated world badminton for a decade-and-a-half. Bursting on the international scene as a 20-year-old in 2003, 'Super Dan' won the World Championship for the first time in 2006, bagged the world crown on four more occasions, picked up gold medals at two successive Olympics in 2008 and 2012, along with six All England titles, and contested for 81 top-level international titles in the course of a dazzling 15-year career at the pinnacle of the sport.
Tai Tzu-ying prepares to serve against Akane Yamaguchi in the women's singles final at the All England Open 2018. AFP
Although the Chinese left-hander was somewhat flat in his summit clash with fellow countryman Shi Yuqi at the All England Open last Sunday, he showed in the course of his march to the final that even at the age of 34, he is far from finished; and that, if he gets a favourable draw, he could be a prime contender for his sixth world title and for a third Olympic gold at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Among the women, there have only been a few in the annals of the sport who have been totally dominant at the world level. A perusal of the list of winners at the All England Open, for long considered the unofficial World Championships, reveals that Ethel B Thomson won five titles in six years between 1900 and 1906, and had a tremendous rivalry with Murial Lucas, who bagged half-a-dozen crowns between 1902 and 1910.
Marjorie Barrett won five crowns between 1926 and 1931, mostly beating 'perennial runner-up' Margaret Larminie Rivers Tragett, who won two titles in 1911 and 1912, and possessed the longevity to return after the years of World War I, when the tournament was not held from 1915 to 1919, and pick up seven runners-up crowns, followed by a third title in 1928.
Judy Devlin Hashman (known popularly as 'Little Red Dev' owing to the flaming colour of her hair) was in every All England final, barring one, from 1954 to 1967, and won ten All England crowns - a record that may never be broken.
Thereafter, there has not been a woman who has been so totally dominant on the world scene, although Indonesian Susi Susanti won four All England titles between 1990 and 1994, and was also a gold medallist at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, along with her sweetheart and future husband, Alan Budikusuma. That was the first year that badminton was included as an Olympic sport.
Susanti had a fine rivalry going with China's Ye Zhaoying, who was in five All England finals, winning three of them, between 1994 and 1999. Another Chinese, Xie Xingfang, who was to go on to marry Lin Dan, made it to four All England finals between 2003 and 2007, winning the title on three occasions.
Thereafter, the one woman who has looked like launching a lengthy stay at the top is the current World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei. At the tender age of 23, Tai has already spent 68 weeks at the top of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, and bagged two All England crowns back-to-back, in 2017 and 2018.
In the course of her canter to the All England title this year, Tai was stretched over three games just once " in the semi-final by China's Chen Yufei, who managed to win the middle game. Chen was, however, totally outmanoeuvred and outplayed in the decider; and the Taiwanese went on to win the crown at the expense of Japan's doughty fighter, Akane Yamaguchi, in straight games at 22-20, 21-13.
What impressed aficionados of the game was the manner in which Tai carved out her victories over some of the best players in the game today, being in full control of the proceedings with her dazzling repertoire of deceptive shots, and appearing to thoroughly enjoy the game at all times, whether she was winning, or losing her grip on occasion. That enigmatic half-smile remained on her face throughout the tournament, except on the one occasion when she was stretched to the decider by Chen in the semi-final.
Even though the Taiwanese star lacks a world championship title and an Olympic medal in her already overflowing trophy cabinet, her record against top contemporaries speaks for itself. She leads two-time world champion and Rio Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin 6-4 in career head-to-heads, with the eye-catching statistic being that she has won their most recent five matches over the past two years.
Tai is 6-5 up against Yamaguchi, having won three of their last four clashes over the past one year; the one time that she lost was at the Australian Open in June 2017. She owns an imposing 8-3 advantage against India's PV Sindhu, including an all-win 4-0 record in matches after 2016. She has met South Korea's Sung Ji Hyun the maximum number of times of any player, and boasts a runaway 17-9 lead in 26 encounters, with victories in their last eight meetings since December 2016.
A comprehensive 7-0 record against Chen is complemented by a 10-5 record against Saina Nehwal, with triumphs in eight of their most recent meetings, making it apparent that the Indian has been totally unable to unravel the Tai mystique. Tai is 3-1 up against He Bingjiao, having won their three most recent meetings after losing their initial one at the 2016 Singapore Open.
Of the two players that Tai has had the maximum trouble against, one is world champion Nozomi Okuhara, with whom she is deadlocked 3-3 in career meetings. Although she won their last meeting at the Indonesia Open in June 2016, she had lost their previous three encounters. Even then, the point must be made that the Taiwanese has improved enormously since 2016.
The player against whom Tai has an adverse record is the only one at the international level whose game most resembles that of the Taiwanese. The 2013 world champion from Thailand, Ratchanok Intanon, leads Tai 11-9 in their 20 career meetings, and boasts of wins on each of the last three occasions that they have played against each other since November 2017. Obviously, Tai does not like a dose of her own medicine, coming from the other side of the net!
A long discussion with former Indian junior national champion Nishad Dravid, who is a keen observer and student of the game, helped to pinpoint some of the reasons why Tai is miles ahead of her next best competitor, and why she appears likely to remain at the top for some time to come.
"In a fierce game like badminton, and that, too, with a format where you can lose a point on your own serve as well as that of the opponent, what makes a difference is how cool and composed the player is," Dravid observed. "The player requires an unimaginable balance of aggression and composure, however strange that may sound, to be the best. What is needed is aggression in your strokes and movement with composure during a bad phase of a game.
"Tai reflects that kind of balance in her game. Her attitude towards the game is more of a teenager trying to win a tug-of-war match for his school, where fun and fiasco both are involved. Her happy-go-lucky nature makes her so peaceful on the court that she hardly feels bad about making a mistake or hitting a bad stroke, thus avoiding any upcoming geometric progression of errors that is evident in most of her competitors.
"Then there is the deception in her game. Flawless strokeplay, with a gutsy attitude to hit shots from unthinkable angles, makes her doubly dangerous. Only Tai can imagine where she is going to hit next. And that is why her opponents cannot read her game that well. There is no set algorithm in her strokeplay, which is again a unique feature of her game."
Indeed, thanks to her twinkle-toed footwork, Tai reaches the shuttle so early that she is spoilt for choice as to where she should hit it. Where other players can work out only a couple of places on the court where they could direct the shuttle, Tai ends up with multiple options, and can delay her stroke till the last split-second to send her opponent in the wrong direction.
If one could borrow a phrase from boxing history, "he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee". That ability had turned Muhammad Ali into a world champion; and Tai possesses it. A lover of good scotch once described Tai's footwork thus: "She moves with the ease of a 25-year-old Chivas Regal running down your throat!" Her finishing strokes cut the opposition better than Excalibur itself.
Another vital talent that Tai possesses is the ability to limit the length of each rally, either by making an outrageous finishing stroke or by going for that little extra which an opponent finds difficult to match. This means that even the longest match she plays barely goes over the hour mark, and does not compare with the harrowing exhaustion that Okuhara and Sindhu faced in the course of their 110-minute long World Championship final in Glasgow last year. One remembers the epic 73-stroke rally that had both bent over in agony at the end, trying to get some air back into their oxygen-starved lungs.
"Tai invariably manages to finish the rally in less than 20-25 strokes on the average, while perhaps one percent of her rallies may have crossed the 30-stroke mark," says Dravid. "This provides a clear indication that she believes in getting points through limited strokeplay. She treats badminton as business, and makes it quick on herself and her opponent without indulging in heavy negotiations.
"Using her strength well, she tries to dominate the rally and win it early, rather than going the Abhinn Shyam Gupta route of conducting untiring negotiations, leading to mental frustration on and off the court." As a footnote, we can identify Gupta as a former Indian national champion who was known as a pure returning machine and had unlimited stamina and accuracy of stroke to keep each rally going for long periods.
"If someone is to beat Tai, she needs to push the rally to over the 25-stroke mark," Dravid adds. She is undoubtedly fit, but has not been tested in playing marathon matches. The only one who troubled her was Ratchanok Intanon, who tries to stretch her opponent with sky-high tosses, followed by back-breaking drops. This is perhaps a starter for our own Sindhu to ponder upon."
That is not to say that Tai is deficient in stamina. There was one rally in the second game of the All England final against Yamaguchi when she was forced to go on the defensive as the Japanese player went on a desperate, last-ditch attack to bridge the gap in points. Tai got the shuttle back from near-impossible angles in what proved to be the longest rally of the match, and won the point, to totally break the Japanese player's resistance. And she was not as distressed at the end of that rally as the super-fit Yamaguchi was - which is saying something!
Tai has not been guilty of taking her talent for granted. She works hard in the gymnasium to hone her footspeed and staying power. A famous photograph of her working out in a bikini-like top and cycling pants shows a well-defined abdominal six-pack that would put even professional body-builders to shame.
All of the foregoing points to the start of a new eon in women's badminton - one that could go down in history as the Tai Tzu Ying era. Unless, of course, the happy-go-lucky Taiwanese gets bored of the game and her hegemony over her best contemporaries.