The Enduring Brilliance of Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon in Badminton

Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon will compete in their fourth Olympics at Paris. But it is to their infinite and enduring credit that two of the most elegant and exciting shuttlers of the last decade, have made badminton in intervening years between the Games, enchanting. The big medals might have moved from one boxed and structured game of Carolina Marin to Chen Yufei to perhaps Paris favourite An Se Young next. But for pulling in badminton watchers week after week, season after season and elevating women’s singles to breathless tear-streaking gleeful art, you needn’t look beyond TTY and Ratchanok.

India’s former international Aparna Popat reckons this is a summer to savour the last of their brilliance, and be silently grateful for having witnessed them in action. This will be as big a set of retirements as Roger Federer’s, and Federer was indeed the TTY and Ratchanok of tennis – in how they get imprinted on the mind, not just the names engraved on trophies.

That badminton had two artists, zephyrs on a hot sticky day, makes the sport infinitely lucky even. Bookended by London and Paris, were a dozen glorious years, where win or lose, the audience could stay captivated by their two skilled spectacular games, traces and trances of which will long outlive any Olympic edition.

Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying in action during 21-13, 21-18 win over Singapore’s Yeo Jia Min in semifinal at Yonex-Sunrise India Open 2024 at IG Stadium, New Delhi on Saturday.

Popat says it is the freedom in their game, painting strokes easily, that will define their style of play. Ratchanok carried grace and fluency in her strokes, and remained a pleasant presence on court, a tug of non violence in the era of mammoth powerhitting and general din of Marin and Sindhu. TTY simply excited the brain, you were always looking out for special moments of magic, no matter which way the match swung. They were both brilliant, but very different, she says.

The 2017 All England final brought them together and might well outshine many an Olympic final. It ended 21-16, 22-20 in favour of the Taiwanese, but Popat recalls her unabated excitement as one fancy arrow was returned by another dazzling one from either end. The calibre of shotmaking was extraordinary that year, even as deception itself forked into two distinct styles.

The Thai’s was the more conventional and smoother deception, while TTY’s trickery was clearly experimental and adventurous. “What just happened” was the constant earworm of those that watched that game.

While TTY added some bolstering power and a visible whip to her deceptions, Ratchanok who was half an era before her, was more classical and a shade better even. She surfaced at a time – remember she won a World Championship at 17 in 2013 – when the Chinese like Xuerui Li and Yihan Wang were just tapering off, and she literally waved them away with a glint of mischief with her style and confidence.

The Thais since Boonsak Ponsana always threw an elegant gauntlet at the presiding Chinese, daring them to be as fluent as them while still winning and making their games look just a little savage and unattractive in comparison. Thais were never as strong or fast as the Chinese nor had the blind running speed of the Japanese. But their technique- Ratchanok through to now Kunlavut Vitidsarn – was always strong, and their court movements looked refined, not a stomping scramble. It was couture badminton moving gracefully amidst high street pageantry.

TTY’s deception, Popat reckons, put her in a different space, as the trickery once again shaded Chinese physicality and brutal culture of winning, but with the incredibly appealing, show-stopping 2-3 shots. TTY lacked the temperament though in her early years, and for a long time, you wondered if the wry refrain would be, ‘Don’t play strokes, don’t be nice’ if winning was the aim.

Ratchanok Intanon celebrates after winning her match. (Express File)

But we would be wrong in assuming, Popat says, that TTY and Ratchanok didn’t have speed and power, just that it wasn’t talked about. Not only could TTY get to the shuttle early and send it to the backline forcefully, but that was overshadowed by how she manoeuvred the bird like no one else could.

Ratchanok could typically make 6 different shots from one back corner, but she could also play percentages and on a good day, her choices of strokes made her unstoppable. They had flare and natural flash, but weren’t necessarily reckless. Moody perhaps, mindless never.

As these two careers draw to a close, Popat fervently hopes their style of manouvering shuttle and not hitting through, stays relevant. That finesse isn’t overpowered by ferocity. It’s years and years of technical chiseling and gentle risk taking and refining of strokes. Gregoria Mariska Tunjung is slightly in that mould, but not quite. And jumping into the power-speed heady mix just seems more convenient for players coming through now. But if badminton has to stay watchable, light on its feet, and a little magical, then Tai Tzu Ying and Intanon Ratchanok will need able successors.

There’s something about the last minute wrist-switch and outrageous strokes, that the mad power and speed just cannot match. It’s that effortless claim to a spectator’s storage memory. It doesn’t need ostentatious coronations every four years. Pick any match of TTY or Ratchanok, and you’ll fall madly in love with badminton, like Federer wowed in tennis. And those snatches of memory imprints will suffice forever.

2024-05-12 03:28:20
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