Carolina Marin's magical transformation: From flamenco dancer to one of the finest shuttlers of her time

A manic yell of exultation at having executed a winning shot, followed by a couple of screams at a marginally lower decibel level, then a swift circle of the court, a furious muttering under the breath that could conceivably be foul imprecations aimed at her opponent or (as she insists) words of self-exhortation; and Carolina Marin, shuttle held delicately by the feathers in the right hand, backed up against the strings of the racquet clutched in the left, is ready to deliver the next serve to her opponent.

It is a routine that almost never varies, regardless of whether the 24-year-old Spanish left-hander is in a dominant, winning position, or – in rarer circumstances – has her back to the wall, trying to salvage some honour in a hopeless, lost cause. Virtually no player on the world badminton circuit can match her bristling on-court mien or aggressive body language that borders on the downright abrasive.

 Carolina Marins magical transformation: From flamenco dancer to one of the finest shuttlers of her time

File photo of Carolina Marin. AFP

And her concentration in pursuit of the job at hand is absolute. One still recalls the behaviour of the Spaniard, equally oblivious to the insane din rocking the jam-packed Istora Senayan Stadium in Jakarta that played host to the 2015 World Championships, and the continuous, almost plaintive, calls of “Carolina! Carolina!” from the Thai chair umpire officiating in that final against India’s Saina Nehwal.

To be fair to Marin, she was neither ignoring the referee nor being insubordinate. So absorbed was she, wrestling in her mind with the conundrum of how to wrest the next point from her redoubtable Indian rival, that she did not even realise she was being summoned to the chair to be warned for time-wasting or some other infringement.

That is how bloody-minded Carolina Maria Marin Martin is. And individualistic. Indeed; the daughter of Gonzalo Marin and Toni Martin likes having her mother’s maiden surname appended to her full name, exactly as one of her illustrious predecessors in the tennis arena, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, did, in the time-honoured Spanish tradition of having the maternal family name tacked on behind her paternal surname.

Not that history will remember her any differently if she chooses to drop the ‘Martin’. Towards the end of 2015, Marin was already being hailed as one of the greatest players of all time after a purple patch that saw her grab the All England and Malaysia Open Super Series Premier titles, followed by the Australian Open and French Open Superseries, the World Championships and the Hong Kong Open Superseries, one behind the other.

And then, post-November 2015, she was forced to negotiate a difficult patch in her career that saw her go through nearly two years without a Superseries crown, until she finally dispelled the drought with the Japan Open Superseries title last Sunday, at the expense of China’s He Bingjiao. The only silver lining (or should one say “golden lining”?) during the cloudy period after November 2015 was the capture of the gold medal at the Rio Olympics.

In order to understand why Marin has despised herself and her on-court efforts during this barren 22-month period, one has to absorb the full impact of the challenge that her long-time coach, Fernando Rivas, threw down before her, shortly after the conclusion of the 2016 Olympics: “Okay, you’ve won an Olympic gold, but that’s now in the past. When I retire, I want you to be the best player in the history of the sport, so even when I die, nobody has surpassed you. Works?”

It is an imposing task set for someone who, until the start of her teen years, had no plans to be a badminton player. Until she was 13, Marin trained to be a flamenco dancer in her home town of Huelva. She tried her hand at recreational badminton at the IES La Orden Badminton Club, and was spotted in 2006 by Rivas, who had been seriously considering getting into coaching after a failed career as a player.

What struck Rivas instantly was Marin’s attacking style, quickness of foot and strong character. “She had control over the tempo of the game in a way that I had never seen in a player of such a young age,” he reminisces. “In my head, I could see that with proper training she could be turned into a champion. So we got down to it.”

Badminton at the time was hardly a popular sport in Spain; and there were few players of any class in the country. Rivas, who is ambidextrous, himself made up for the lack of training partners for the left-handed Marin in the beginning, but adopted a coaching style that was vastly different from the methods employed by the Chinese, who, at the time, were the acknowledged masters of the game at the international level.

Not surprisingly, the rigid minds in Spain decried Rivas’ unconventional methods, and predicted nothing but doom and desolation for his ward. It was only when the dancer-turned-shuttler began winning medals in her mid-teens did the Spanish sports mandarins grudgingly accept that there might just be something in Rivas’ ideas.

“If you look at traditional ways of coaching, there's no room for innovation and research,” Rivas says. “What the Chinese say is: ‘This is what we have done for 20 years; we’ve won 20 times, so why should we change?’

“Since Spain was bad in the sport, with no great results or medals, it offered me an opportunity to carve a different path, a different approach. I don’t coach Marin the way I coach other players. It doesn't mean they don’t succeed; they don’t succeed as much as Marin because they are not as outstanding as she is.”

In 2009, when she was just shy of her 16th birthday, Marin became the first Spanish badminton player to win a silver medal at the 2009 European Junior Badminton Championships. Shortly thereafter, the feisty southpaw was able to convert the colour of the medal to gold in the 2009 European Under-17 Badminton Championships.

Thereafter, it was a litany of ‘firsts’, starting with being the first Spanish player to win a representative Tier-II title on the international badminton circuit – the 2013 London Grand Prix Gold title.

A year down the line, at the age of 21, she wore down China’s Li Xuerui in a bruising final of the World Championships in Copenhagen, to become the first Spaniard to win a world badminton title, and just the third European player to take home the world gold medal, after Denmark’s Lene Koppen in 1977 and Camilla Martin in 1999. She also had the distinction of being the youngest European world champion ever.

The following year, 2015, which has been the best of her career thus far, Marin won the All England, her first Superseries Premier title, defeating Nehwal in the final by a 16-21, 21-14, 21-7 scoreline. The supremely fit Spaniard was able to wear the Indian ace down, and looked stronger and stronger as the match progressed.

Amazingly, it is Nehwal to whom Rivas gives credit for transforming him from a good coach into an outstanding one. “We had been trying to beat Saina for a while but Marin just couldn’t find a way around her,” he says. “That gave me a lot of motivation because I had analysed Saina very well. It taught me a lot in terms of questioning my methods both in preparation and analysis with Marin, and helped me develop my coaching skills. It was a turning point in my career. Saina made me a much better coach than I ever was.”

Since that All England final in March 2015, Marin has assumed a mental ascendancy over Nehwal, the Indian having been at the receiving end of a 21-16, 21-19 defeat in the final of the 2015 World Championships in Jakarta, and again, in the final of the 2016 Indonesia Open. Another Indian, PV Sindhu, has had to bear the brunt of ending up second-best to the Spaniard in an all-important tournament – the Olympic final at Rio de Janeiro in August 2016.

Let us then say that Marin has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by her coach of 12 years; and is deadly serious about her run at history. Even though she only ascended to the world No 1 position in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) standings on 11 June, 2015, nearly a year after winning the first of her two world titles, she remained at the pinnacle of the standings for all but six weeks until 24 November, 2016.

Currently ranked No 5, Marin, in what is her second innings, is inching her way inexorably to the top. From her experience of the past three years, since she first became world champion at Copenhagen in 2014, the Spaniard has realised that few can match her in foot speed, aggression and mental toughness, even as she retains the natural advantage of being a left-hander.

“If Carolina remains healthy and injury-free, there is no player in the world who can beat her,” says Rivas, with unshakeable confidence. “She has the ability to dictate the pace in most of the rallies, so that even the best stroke-makers like (Chinese Taipei’s) Tai Tzu Ying and (Thailand’s) Ratchanok Intanon do not get sufficient time to make their deceptive strokes, and have to play at her speed.

“She is hard-working, so does not lack physical fitness or staying power. It is only if she is suffering from an injury – she was slowed down by a leg injury between the 2015 Dubai Super Series Grand Finals (Dubai World Super Series Finals) and the 2016 All England – that her foot speed (will) get reduced, and she (will) begin to look vulnerable. But if she enjoys good health, she has no weaknesses in her game, and does have the ability to become the best female badminton player of all time.”

Updated Date: Sep 26, 2017 17:01:43 IST

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