Taiwan’s Badminton Queen
Tai Tzu-ying’s Road to World No. 1
Tai Tzu-ying has become Taiwan’s first-ever female badminton player to be ranked No. 1 in the world. How did Tai get there and does she have what it takes to stay on top, considering her fear of the limelight?
Tai Tzu-ying’s Road to World No. 1By Pei-hua Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 619 )
March 12 in London. Tai Tzu-ying, who has been the world’s top-ranked female badminton player since December 2016, becomes the first Taiwanese ever to win the women’s singles title at the prestigious All England Open, achieving another milestone for Taiwanese badminton.
While Tai certainly appreciated capturing the title, she was probably not as fond of the attention it brought. When Tai does live streams on Facebook, she’ll sing songs by pop idol J.J. Lin while eating candy and chatting with fans. But away from social media, Tai is much more like the Lone Ranger.
Back in Taiwan, it is 10:30 a.m., and the national badminton team’s morning workout has come to an end. The only one out there is the headphone-wearing Tai cooling down on her own. At noontime, she is sitting alone for lunch, focused completely on her food. Her mother Hu Jung says her daughter has always preferred peace and quiet, shying away from commotion.
“She doesn’t go to wedding banquets because she’s afraid people will want to take their picture with her,” Hu says.
Yet despite her preference to avoid attention, Tai no longer has the option of staying out of the media spotlight. Prior to last year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, an ugly dispute between Tai and the Chinese Taipei Badminton Association emerged when the association threatened to punish her for wearing shoes not provided by the association’s official sponsor.
Because Tai’s two feet are different sizes, she had always worn custom-made footwear on the badminton court provided by Taiwanese badminton racket maker Victor Sports. And she decided to continue to wear Victor-made shoes in Rio to be at her best even though Japanese-brand Yonex had signed a contract with the association requiring Taiwanese Olympians to only use Yonex gear in Rio, angering the national body.
The ugly dispute erupted publicly after Tai was ousted from the Olympics in mid-August, but it was simmering in Taiwan even before Tai left for Rio.
Tai’s father Tai Nan-kai told his daughter to concentrate on badminton, but the two sides remained at loggerheads, prompting Tai’s seemingly mild-mannered mother to think about throwing caution to the wind and staging a public sit-in. Tai’s 86-year-old grandmother was also perturbed, saying that if they had to pay a fine they would sell the family’s old homestead.
But the entire family did everything they could to maintain a simple, low-key environment in which Tai could concentrate on the sport.
The badminton association eventually relented and, along with Yonex, apologized after the controversy was aired publicly. But it was too late.
Tai was ousted unceremoniously in the round of 16 at the Olympics, earlier than anybody had expected, by Indian P.V. Sindhu 21-13, 21-15. Tai did not use the controversy as an excuse for her performance, and an arm injury that she incurred in the month prior to the Rio tournament and Sindhu’s hot play that carried her to a silver medal were likely the major factors in the young Taiwanese’s early exit. But the dispute still had to weigh on her.
Yet Tai emerged from the disappointment of Rio and the sponsorship controversy even stronger, vaulting to world No. 1 on Dec. 1, 2016 after winning the Yonex Sunrise Hong Kong Open in late November.
Though the 1.63-meter Tai is considerably shorter than most of her closest competitors, she overcomes that in part with strength, according to her coach Lai Chien-cheng. When she was in kindergarten, she was the only child in her class who could use her arms to go from one end of the horizontal bar to the other. In analyzing her style, foreign media have also focused on her amazing backhand and her deceptive shot-making as the tools that keep her competitive against taller rivals.
But she likely would not have gone from “Taiwan’s youngest-ever top female badminton player” to becoming the first Taiwanese to be ranked No. 1 in the world without the support of her father. When Tai decided to play badminton in the third grade, her father started looking for schools that were strong in the sport and he had his daughter change elementary schools twice in fourth years.
When Tai reached junior high school and started competing abroad, the team hoped Tai would compete in women’s doubles and mixed doubles, but Tai Nan-kai insisted that his daughter focus on women’s singles. Also, very few Taiwanese badminton players have their own coach, but Tai’s father was eventually able to have Lai Chien-cheng go from being a training partner to a coach at the National Sports Training Center and serve as Tai’s coach almost full-time.
Her father’s persistence also helped Tai take a big jump in her career. The Singapore Open Super Series event in 2010, which concluded on Tai’s 16th birthday, was the young Taiwanese star’s coming out party. She advanced all the way from qualifiers to the women’s singles final, knocking out fifth seed Eriko Hirose along the way, and it was that event that started her rise up the world rankings.
But she almost didn’t play in the event because her coach advised her not to enter it.
“She was originally wait-listed, and could not get into the qualifying draw. I told the coach that if she went there and didn’t get a spot [in the qualifying draw], then I would foot the bill for her expenses and would treat it as giving a child a chance to take a trip abroad,” Tai Nan-kai recalls.
He has also fueled his daughter’s ambition. When Tai Nan-kai worked as a foreign affairs policeman in the Port of Kaohsiung, he saw big ships pull into the port every day and frequently came into contact with foreigners, opening his eyes to the world. That led him to tell his daughter from the time she was young that being No. 1 in Taiwan was not a big deal, that she should aim to compete on a global stage.
Tai Nan-kai has never gotten angry with his daughter after a loss. To this day, whenever Tai Tzu-ying is competing abroad, she’ll invariably get a text from her father with generally the same message whether she wins or loses: “Matches are only exciting because sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Go get changed and make sure you go through your cool-down routine.”
Beyond her strength and skills and her father’s support, Tai has also put up admirably with the grind of intense training required of any world-class athlete. Her mother Hu Jung says her daughter has never complained, but simply asked that she not have to practice on weekends. That hadn’t changed in more than 10 years until before last year’s Olympics, when Tai decided she wanted to train on weekends.
Her pursuit of perfection may have backfired, however, because she suffered an arm injury in the weeks before heading to Rio that left her in the doldrums. “She was on the telephone crying uncontrollably,” her mother recalls.
‘It’s Hard for Me to Watch Her Train’
Tai Tzu-ying always appears calm with in victory or defeat, but she has struggled to let go of her Olympic disappointment. A comment she made at the end of 2016 when she became world No. 1 suggests her struggle to overcome the loss could be because her father once told her that he hoped she would one day play in the Summer Games.
“I’ve never thought of being the top-ranked player in the world, just like I had never thought about competing in the Olympics. Playing in the Olympics was to help fulfill my father’s dream,” she said at the time.
Even if Tai Nan-kai later quickly clarified that he simply made the statement in jest in front of relatives and friends, it was clear his daughter took his words to heart, explaining why she was so despondent when she suffered her injury before the Rio Games.
When her mother is asked how she feels about the “Girl Genius” tag given her daughter because of her shot-making skills, Hu Jung says she has only seen Tai Tzu-ying practice once and that it was hard for her to watch.
“Her coach kept hitting her shuttlecocks. He clearly knew she was exhausted and couldn’t run anymore. As I watched, I wanted to run for her. After that when I went to school to pick her up, I always waited for her downstairs,” Hu says.
Though Tai dislikes the spotlight and seems to take winning and losing in stride, she nonetheless has a strong internal drive. There was a time when she injured her wrist in phys ed class, and could not practice. She was given an injection by a doctor and just three days later called her parents and said elatedly: “I can hit long shots.” Her dad quickly told his daughter, “Take it easy. Don’t rush things.”
Her coach Lai also says he doesn’t have to worry about Tai’s practice habits.
“Professional athletes all clearly know what they want. If an athlete doesn’t ask a lot of him or herself, it won’t be easy for that person to become a really good player,” Lai says.
After interviewing Tai’s parents, CommonWealth reporters went out with the couple to have some stinky tofu, and Tai Nan-kai revealed that he plans to go to the Tokyo Olympics with friends in 2020 to see his daughter play.
If she’s playing as well then as she is now, she should fare much better in Japan than she did in Rio. Just as stinky tofu has become an acknowledged favorite of regular Taiwanese that scares off foreigners, so too is Tai Tzu-ying, a product of Taiwan that none of her foreign rivals on women’s badminton dare to underestimate.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier