Badminton: Titles, top ranking have not changed modest 'Little Tai'

Chinese Taipei's world No. 1 Tai Tzu-ying (above) beat compatriot Chiang Mei-hui 21-11, 21-8 in just 24 minutes last night and faces Japan's Sayaka Sato in today's quarter-finals. She reached the top ranking after winning in Hong Kong last November and ha
Chinese Taipei's world No. 1 Tai Tzu-ying (above) beat compatriot Chiang Mei-hui 21-11, 21-8 in just 24 minutes last night and faces Japan's Sayaka Sato in today's quarter-finals. She reached the top ranking after winning in Hong Kong last November and has strengthened her position since with three more big titles. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The cosy Kaohsiung home that has cradled Tai Tzu-ying through her childhood has remained the same through the years.

Two walls that line the entrance are plastered with award certificates and newspaper clippings of the badminton star, so many that they were gradually pasted over pictures of her parents' hiking trips.

This is what has transformed instead: the 22-year-old Taiwanese now holds the badminton world in her hands and as the world No. 1, has shown that she stands firmly at the peak of her sport.

Tai rose to the top when she won the Hong Kong Open last November and has been dominant since. She has picked up a further three major titles in a row - the prestigious season finale in Dubai, last month's All England Open and last week's Malaysia Open.

It is the fruition of unreservedly building her life around badminton, knowing at age 15 when she chose to take the professional path that she had few other alternatives.

"I had spent so much time on training, I knew it was the only route I could take," she told The Straits Times, admitting that she struggled to sit herself down to study. "Once I chose to play badminton, I knew that there wasn't going to be a way out for me. So I took it very seriously, and had very high expectations of myself."

Lady Luck has been kind, said Tai.

After a fairy-tale run to the final of the 2010 Singapore Open - then still a 16-year-old with a spunky hairdo playing in just her third Superseries event - she was largely spared from circling qualifiers.

At 18, she won her first Superseries title at the Japan Open. Her world ranking climbed in tandem with her meteoric rise.

She soon earned nicknames. Teenage years were spent being referred to as the "girl prodigy" by the media back home. As she blossomed into a steady star into her 20s, "badminton queen" was used more regularly.

In reality, though, the introverted shuttler, daughter to firefighters, just wants to continue being the "Little Tai" she has always been affectionately known by those closest to her.

The one who still competes using rackets personally strung by her father, no matter how far she travels or for how long. Still playing recreationally every weekend with her parents and elder sister - using her weaker left hand - three-on-three style with family friends who don shirts that read "Tai Tzu Ying Fans Club".

She said: "Perhaps, compared to some, I may have a bit more talent, but anyone who is playing professionally has talent to begin with. I'm really not that special.

"I don't think I possess any outstanding quality - certainly not height," joked the 1.63m Tai. "You'd still have to put in a lot of hard work."

Even then, nothing is a guarantee. She said: "I prepared amply for the Olympics. I had hoped for something in Rio, maybe as a form of 'reward' after all these years of devotion. But I still came away with nothing (she lost in the round of 16 to silver medallist P.V. Sindhu of India)."

But it helps that both victory and defeat has always been secondary for Tai. She said: "I never tell myself what I want to accomplish, or how far I want to go in a competition. Even if I win a competition, but failed to put to practice what I've learnt in training, it'd still be a win that's rather meaningless to me.

"The contrary is true as well ."

So while the disappointment of Rio stung, it failed to break her.

"Have these titles and trophies now come too late? Maybe it's just about timing," said Tai. "I think so-called 'results' come at different junctures in people's lives.

"What I pursue has always been the same. This is who I've always been, and always will be."


May Chen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'Titles, top ranking have not changed modest 'Little Tai''. Print Edition | Subscribe