It’s a tricky business, predicting the success of apparent prodigies. We constantly seek fresh new faces who we assume will challenge the established order. Every time a teenager takes a set off Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, we’d like to think there’s something in this kid to watch out for. How many times we have gone wrong!
Still, there is something about Tai Tzu Ying which portends great things ahead. The 18-year-old from Chinese Taipei won the Japan Open Superseries on Sunday, and major surprises apart, she should be the next big thing in badminton.
At the Japan Open we saw an exhibition of talent seldom seen before. She showed court craft, deception, power and variety in taking down players such as Ratchanok Intanon in the quarters, Sung Ji Hyun in the semis and Japanese veteran Eriko Hirose in the final. We were treated to the rare sight of a variety of backhand strokes – including a couple of rasping backhand smashes. Even more unusual – a backhand serve flicked high! When’s the last time we saw that?
The daughter of a fire fighter, Tzu Ying hasn’t emerged out of the woodwork. Over the last year, she has had a number of notable victories, but she hasn’t strung them in the course of a week to win a major title. Over the last year, she has – hold your breath – already beaten the likes of Saina Nehwal, Tine Baun, Wang Xin, Lu Lan and world No.1 Wang Yihan. All of them are top-ten players, and she’s just 18.
At the Denmark Open last year, she beat Saina in straight games. The Indian girl looked rusty, and Tzu Ying kept catching her with her deceptive flicks. Gopi, Saina’s coach, nodded in appreciation. “She looks good,” he said.
Saina leads their head-to-head 4-1, but two of those matches have gone down the wire. Their first encounter was in the final of the 2010 Singapore Open Superseries, which was in the middle of Saina’s amazing three-title sequence in three weeks. Tzu Ying, just 16 then, lost 21-18 21-15, but doubtless, she has grown as a player since then.
In 2011 she won her maiden title – the US Open GP Gold, and reached the semifinals of the French Open Superseries, This year she reached the semifinals of the All England, losing to eventual winner Li Xuerui in three games. At the Olympics, she again pushed Li Xuerui in the second game, losing 23-21. With her first Superseries victory, she has announced herself as the player to watch, along with fellow-teen PV Sindhu.
The next few years therefore might not be a simple ‘Saina vs China’ rivalry as made out in the Indian media. Tzu Ying, Sindhu, and Ratchanok apart, there are a few young Japanese who have logged impressive results. Minatsu Mitani, Sayaka Takahashi and Nozomi Okuhara might well herald the dawn of a new generation of competitive Japanese singles players. Women’s singles badminton is headed for exciting times.