Tai plays for Bengaluru Raptors in Indian Badminton League. (Source: File Photo)
There's a surfeit of talented women looming on Tai Tzu-Ying's horizon as the Tokyo Olympics approach — the Carolinas and Sindhus, Chen Yufeis and Nozomi Okuharas. Tai is one of a staggering six contenders for the Tokyo gold, and you'd reckon finding the zigzagging way out of that intimidating maze with a giant stride would be topmost on the World No. 2’s mind at the start of 2020.
She's thinking instead of unhurried times, of small steps in small walks taken in a neighbourhood park with her 90-year-old grandmother back in Chinese Taipei. When the wandering whirlpool of high-intensity badminton — all that high-profile winning and losing — gets too much, and she is home in Taiwan, Tai sets off on her slow walks with her granny.
“My best childhood memories from home in Kaohsiung are of my grandmother. She is 90 years old now, but both of us still spend a lot of time together. She is my closest friend and confidante,” the 24-year-old reveals on a day she's restless in India, having arrived for the Premier Badminton League, and can't stop talking about her granny.
Asian shuttlers lead extremely insular lives revolving around the sport, and the little time away from the sport is devoted to social networking — Instagram and whatever other platforms are the rage in the East Asian world.
Tai grew up prodded by a shuttle-crazy father, learnt her famous trick shots from her mirthful dozen uncles who sparred with her, has a coach who keeps an eagle eye on every step she takes, and a physio who added power to her famed deception. Crowding her mind space further with the sport is the constant pressure of beating the Chinese rivals, besides the other top contenders in women’s singles. And then time slows down for the world’s most mesmerising shuttler when she thinks of the oasis called her grandmother.
“Any time I’m not playing, training or travelling, she and me would sit and watch sports together. We also go to the park close to her home quite often for short walks,” she says.
Tai played a lot of badminton with her family — father Tai Nan-Kai, a cop and later firefighter, and mother Hu Jung, an earnest recreational shuttler.
Downtown Kaohsiung is an artist's haunt, where creativity has blossomed in its riotously colourful street art, and has its quaint hillocks and markets and streams. Tai played a lot of badminton with her family — father Tai Nan-Kai, a cop and later firefighter, and mother Hu Jung, an earnest recreational shuttler. Never too fond of studies, she would choose badminton in third grade and change multiple schools to find the perfect training. Her sister quickly linked up to form the support system around her as she hit international headlines at age 16.
She remained the shy woman, finding her full flourish in her myriad strokes but not quite an aggressive go-getter at the beginning — something that reflected in her game. She’d skip the World Championships in 2017 as World No. 1 to play in the University Games, even as she swung wildly between two extremes: some days she looked utterly unbeatable owing to her alchemy of strokes. On others she was so error-prone, rivals knew just when to bully her out of court. Kaohsiung has its famous Penghu Bridge — a spot popular for family pictures in pre-selfie years. A toddler Tai would stand there with the imposing bridge arching above her and her posing sister, and cover her face with both hands just when the camera clicked. Almost shy of fame even back then, her expansive, expressive game was where she came into her own.
She has a tight-knit system besides her granny with her mother and an elder sister whose fashion advice she loves to disruptively subvert, but who keeps things light at home with impromptu karaokes and photo sessions where they spoof supermodels on the ramp for a riotous collection of parody pictures.
Sport wasn’t always the regimented torture that it morphs into when chasing Olympics. “Childhood memories are always special. I spent a lot of time with my parents and we would play lot of games as a family which was great fun. We’d play for hours on holidays and after my father came back from work.”
Her coach Lai Jian-cheng — one of the youngest ex-players-turned-mentors — is often roped in for lemonade-drinking group contests and photo sessions where the tone is decidedly burlesque. On the court though, neither betrays a grin, as the earlier goofy Tai has matured into a world-beater (minus the crowns though).
Her maiden Olympics in 2012 was subsumed by the excitement of representing Chinese Taipei at the biggest stage. “I was very young back then and playing the Olympics for the first time was way more exciting for me while representing my country. So more than the performance, my excitement took over me,” she chuckles, sending into sharp relief what a first-timer like Sindhu managed to overcome.
In 2016 though, Tai Tzu-Ying was well and truly primed for a medal, before PV Sindhu rained down on her in the pre-quarterfinals
In 2016 though, Tai Tzu-Ying was well and truly primed for a medal, before PV Sindhu rained down on her in the pre-quarterfinals, an exit that jolted arguably the world’s most stylish player out of her easygoing play. Four World Championships and one Olympics have seen her go out before the semifinals and Sindhu's been the one denying her twice, despite Tai holding an 11-5 win-loss edge over her. Though the 25-year-old would return the favour at the 2018 Asian Games, where she claims to be one mistake away from losing to Sindhu's imposing game.
“Sindhu is tall and very fast. At the Asiad, I did nothing different, just played my usual game. But I had to be at the top of my game as Sindhu was very tough to beat. One mistake and the match was gone. I am happy that I could win the first badminton gold for my country.”
Her other troubler-in-chief is Rio champ Carolina Marin. “She is very, very fast and that creates lot of pressure. I have mostly tried to control the pace of the game with deception but her pace is so fast that one tends to make mistakes. Then she (Marin) just snatches away the match.”
Her India sojourn in the PBL is as much about the humongous Rs 77 lakh that Bengaluru Raptors shelled out as about searching for a tiny piece of the jigsaw in her game. “She's short, for which she catches up with her talent and trickery. But she knows she needs to adapt or it’s tough (against Sindhu and Marin). So she's done the smart thing to come here and figure a few things out,” says Raptors coach Arvind Bhat.
Tai is accompanied by her coach Lai Jian-Cheng, who walked up to Bhat on Day 2 and told him the duo welcomed inputs during matches. “He doesn't mind sitting back and has urged her to learn as much as she can from Indian coaches. Very few top players are receptive to the ideas of other coaches. But she is keen to learn and adapt,” Bhat explains.
Like Marin who was part of the first Bangalore franchise, Tai too wears her celebrity tag lightly and is not aloof from her teammates, though not much of a speech-giver during team meetings. Franchise badminton is one rigmarole of competing, training, eating, sleeping and travel. “I don't fret about points gone past. I just get on with the game,” she explains her approach.
The ripped abs happened along the way. “It is very tough to grow a six-pack; I didn't make any conscious efforts but I take my fitness regime very seriously as I spend two hours daily in the gym training.”
She refuses to elaborate on her rivalry with the Chinese biggies — Chen Yufei notably, calling them “just another game”. She adores her Taiwanese roots though — a nice piping hot rice bowl, Jay Chou's music and healthcare advances in her country. She’s looking for the biggest global title in Tokyo, staying firmly rooted to her land even as she weighs retirement post Tokyo after two decades of back-breaking training that can tire the bones. And then, like always, she’ll go on serene strolls with her grandmum.