In the BWF World Tour Finals on Sunday, there was a moment in the women’s singles final between Tai Tzu Ying and Carolina Marin that you would not find in the highlight reel but it was one of significance. In the opening game, Marin was recovering after starting on the backfoot. She was, as she does, dictating the tempo. On her serve, she was relentless during rallies as well as between points.

But at a service break, she first asked for a shuttle change. Then, she went to towel down. She was slowing it down now as Tai stood ready to serve. Back in position on the court, Marin was still not ready and looking downward, trying to gather her thoughts seemingly. And at that point, Tai hit the serve. Of course, Marin was not ready and it had to be redone but this was the Chinese Taipei star letting the chair umpire know without uttering a single word that she wanted the game to move forward. This was Tai Tzu Ying, usually unflappable and zen-like on the court, giving the indication that Marin’s tactics were affecting her.

Of course, the Spaniard then went on to win the opening game, playing her typical firebrand badminton. But even in the subsequent games, we saw a side of Tai that we typically don’t. Her vocal game was on the rise too, without ever matching Marin’s intensity. In the second game, in fact, we heard more of Tai than Marin. And in the decider, she even refused a shuttle change when Marin called for one. That, as you will know if you have followed the reigning world No 1’s game, is a rarity.

However, in the end, while showing signs that she was willing to tweak her mental and physical game in order to win, it was Tai’s remarkable shot-making skills and tactical nous that came to her rescue. Without ever losing her cool, she found a way to counter the Marin juggernaut as she clinched her third season-ending title.

And after three straight Sundays of fascinating title matches, the consolidated scoreline read: 21-9, 21-16, 21-19, 21-17, 21-14, 8-21, 19-21.

The rivalry to watch out for

With no one quite sure what to expect from badminton after the barrenness of 2020, both Tai and Marin laid down markers in a fiercely competitive women’s singles field. With three big-ticket events at the start of 2021 marking the end of the 2020 season (yes, you read that right), it was important for the two superstars to show where their levels are at. In the absence of the two Japanese aces Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi as well as China’s rising star Chen Yufei, all eyes were on Tai and Marin along with two world champions PV Sindhu and Ratchanok Intanon. These are the top eight in the world at the moment.

While Sindhu struggled for consistency and Intanon showed glimpses of her best, the three weeks in Bangkok as it turned out were all about Tai vs Marin. The duo competed in all three finals, with both of them losing one other match apart from the ones against each other.

The early marker was laid down by Marin. The title clash at the BWF World Tour Finals (her first incidentally) was the 12th tournament final she had competed in in 19 events since her return from a knee surgery. It is the sort of injury that has ended the careers of many a professional athlete but Marin is extraordinary, in the truest sense of the word, as we saw when she returned to court to hit shuttles in no time after her surgery. The 27-year-old’s form since her comeback is testament to her character.

For Tai Tzu Ying, her dominance of the field is unquestionable as she has been the No 1-ranked player for a large part of the last few years. But it is remarkable that she still has not won a World Championship (Marin has won three) or an Olympics medal (Marin is the reigning gold medallist). No one can question the 26-year-old’s class but a hat-trick of defeats against Marin at the start of an Olympic year would have been a mental blow unarguably.

So, she dug deep. Over the three weeks she didn’t play anywhere close to the high levels she is consistently capable of, with murmurs surrounding her fitness not dying down. It was in the semi-final against rising star An Se Young that she seemed to have finally hit the sweet spot and she found that again on Sunday at various points in the match.

Head-to-head (Tai Tzu Ying 10-8 Carolina Marin)

Tournament Stage Score Date
BWF World Tour Finals 2020  Final Tai Tzu Ying 14-21 21-8 21-19 Carolina Marin January 31, 2021
Thailand Open (II) Final Tai Tzu Ying [1] 19-21 17-21 Carolina Marin [5] January 24, 2021
Thailand Open (I) Final Tai Tzu Ying [1] 9-21 16-21 Carolina Marin [5] January 17, 2021
All England Open SF Tai Tzu Ying [2] 19-21 21-13 21-11 Carolina Marin [8] March 14, 2020
China Open  Rd 1 Tai Tzu Ying [1] 21-16 13-1 Retired Carolina Marin November 5, 2019
French Open  SF Tai Tzu Ying [1] 16-21 9-21 Carolina Marin October 26, 2019
China Open Final Tai Tzu Ying [2] 21-14 17-21 18-21 Carolina Marin September 22, 2019
Hong Kong Open QF Tai Tzu Ying [1] 18-21 21-9 21-14 Carolina Marin [5] November 16, 2018
Malaysia Masters SF Tai Tzu Ying [1] 12-21 21-15 23-21 Carolina Marin [4] January 20, 2018
Singapore Open Final Tai Tzu Ying [1] 21-15 21-15 Carolina Marin [4] April 16, 2017
Malaysia Open Final Tai Tzu Ying [1] 23-25 22-20 21-13 Carolina Marin [2] April 9, 2017
 Hong Kong Open SF Tai Tzu Ying [4] 21-17 14-21 21-16 Carolina Marin [1] November 26, 2016
 China Open QF Tai Tzu Ying [5] 21-10 22-20 Carolina Marin [1] November 18, 2016
World Superseries Finals 2015 Group stage Tai Tzu Ying 16-21 9-21 Carolina Marin December 9, 2015
French Open SF Tai Tzu Ying [3] 17-21 17-21 Carolina Marin [2] October 24, 2015
All England Open SF Tai Tzu Ying [7] 18-21 11-21 Carolina Marin [6] March 7, 2015
China Open Rd 2 Tai Tzu Ying [8] 21-14 21-17 Carolina Marin November 12, 2014
World C'ships 2014 QF Tai Tzu Ying [8] 21-19 19-21 11-21 Carolina Marin [9] August 29, 2014
Winner highlighted in bold (Number [] indicates seeding at tournament)

Still, at 17-19 down in the decider, the tide was in favour of Marin to finally add that elusive year-end title to her name. It is not the sort of position that the Spaniard loses from but Tai saved her best drop shots and half-slices for the last, as she reeled off four straight points. Having tactically played the right card by choosing side at the toss, she was in the favourable side of the court in the final stretch and she made it count.

“Finally, I won. This victory is significant because I had to really maintain focus,” Tai said after the win. “Marin forces a lot of pressure as she is fast. If I lose a bit of focus the gap becomes big and very hard to chase down. I needed to take care of that because every point matters against her.”

For Marin, it was a defeat that prevented the head-to-head from being 9-9 but her form in Bangkok was simply extraordinary. “I’m not really happy [losing on Sunday] but I think it was a really three good weeks for me. Two titles and a final, it’s very difficult for any player,” she said.

Her dismantling of Tai Tzu Ying in the previous two meetings served another reminder of why she has to be the favourite to retain her Olympic gold, fitness and pandemic permitting.

At the podium, both players stood with wide smiles and from a close-up shot of their faces, you would not know which player had won or lost. Simply because, both players had their reasons to be happy. In badminton’s very own song of ice and fire, the 2021 chapter is off to a rather sensational start.

Corrections and clarifications: Tai Tzu Ying was referred to as Tai Tzu in some places in the article earlier. Those instances have been corrected to Tai.