Concept of 'mixed singles' in international badminton does not hold water, will remain a non-starter
Vimal Kumar, chief coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy is categorical in his assessment that women shuttlers simply cannot match their male counterparts in competitive singles play.
Mixed singles? Is there any such event in any sport involving strenuous physical activity (not mental effort, as in chess), where a woman is pitted against a man in a proper match environment? It would be an event additional to the five standard events that prevail in most racket sports – men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles.
The example of mixed singles that springs instantly to mind is the famous tennis ‘Battle of the Sexes’, played out in 1973, when the then reigning queen of the game, Billie Jean King, faced the maverick former World No 1, Bobby Riggs, in a five-set match, of the kind that is only played in the Grand Slam ‘majors’, and not at all by women. The 55-year-old Riggs had boasted that he could beat any female tennis player in the world in a full-length encounter.
King, who was a few months shy of her 30th birthday at the time, won the $100,000 winner-take-all match comprehensively by a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 scoreline, and earned a huge number of merit points for women’s tennis. It had not been just a match between two tennis players, but a larger societal statement about women’s sports and the equal respect they deserved. The bespectacled American would go on to lay the foundation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which is the nodal body for women’s tennis to this day.
However, no such ‘mixed singles’ match had been recorded in the history of professional badminton until last week, when Chinese Taipei’s female World No 1, Tai Tzu-ying, was pitted against national-level male rivals on two successive days of action in a tournament that had been organised in Kaohsiung to keep Taiwan’s Olympic-calibre athletes sharp.
Tai's last international competition before global sports events were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic was in early-March this year, when she won the women’s singles at the All England Championships for the third time in the last four years, successfully reversing the result of the 2019 championships in which she had been eclipsed in the final by China’s Chen Yufei.
Thereafter, for over four-and-a-half months, the 26-year-old Taiwanese shuttler has had to mope around on the sidelines in the absence of any international competition, as also the permission to train as usual in any gymnasium. Her country’s badminton association decided to present her with an unusual challenge to help her recover her form and fitness before the expected resumption of international events in the foreseeable future.
On Sunday, 2 August, Tai was pitted against a top male player on the first day of a three-day badminton event, with her first opponent being the two-time men’s singles national champion, Lin Chia-hsuan. The 28-year-old Lin, whose highest men's singles position in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings was 120th in early-2018, rarely plays in international events anymore, but he was still good enough for Tai to be given a handicap of eight points (i.e. an 8-0 start) at the beginning of each game.
The reigning All-England queen eventually emerged victorious by a 21-19, 18-21, 21-11 scoreline in a 70-minute battle, but admitted that it had been a tiring experience.
“It was really exhausting; no fun at all,” Tai said, after the match. “The eight points I was spotted in each game were not much help because it meant that Lin came out firing at the beginning of each game to make up the deficit, leaving me on the defensive most of the time. It was only when Lin tired and slowed down that I was able to find opportunities to attack.”
It must be mentioned that Tai often practices with male players, as she has no worthwhile female competition in her country. However, she conceded that playing a formal match was a completely different experience. When asked if the match had been tough enough, she answered laconically, “Too tough!”
Just how taxing it had been became very evident on the very next day when Tai crossed swords with Tsai Chieh-hao, a speedy and fit 20-year-old national team training partner. He was fresh, having been kept from playing on the first day; and Tai claimed she felt defeated before hitting the court, despite being given smaller 3-0 gratuitous starts in each game against Tsai.
She eventually lost at 21-18, 21-16 – meaning, without the +3 handicap, she made 15 points of her own in the first game, and 13 points in the second. “I knew even before the match, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with his (Tsai’s) speed,” Tai said, admitting to feeling physically drained after the previous day’s encounter against Lin.
The reigning World No 1 said she practices with men in her training sessions, but she had never played real matches two days in a row against male rivals “because it would put too much stress on the female body.” In international tournaments, Tai generally plays matches five days in a row if she reaches the finals, but in those cases, she said, both players have expended some of their energy in the lead-up to the finals, and are hence on equal footing.
Vimal Kumar, chief coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA), that operates within the Dravid Padukone Centre of Excellence in Bangalore, is categorical in his assessment that women shuttlers simply cannot match their male counterparts in competitive singles play.
“It is simply not feasible unless the woman is given a decent handicap,” he says. “One can work on a mixed doubles combination, and extract more from the woman player, but it is not possible in singles. We practice male versus female if sufficient players are not available on a particular day, and the girl needs to get in some practice; or if the girl wants extra intensive practice.
“I remember when Saina (Nehwal) was among the top five in the world, and practised for three years at PPBA, she often played against Lakshya Sen, who was then an Under-15 sub-junior – mainly because she had no opposition worth the while among the other women. More often than not, Lakshya used to beat her fairly comfortably – for the loss of 13 to 14 points per game. Saina would beat some of the other boys occasionally, but most of the time, the boys would prevail.”
It is known that several other countries, with the possible exception of China, have practice sessions that feature female versus male in singles play. Just as Tai Tzu-ying lacks worthwhile female opposition in her country, the three-time former world champion and reigning Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, has no quality female compatriots to practice against in her home country. Her coach, Fernando Rivas, is known to make her practice against fellow-Spaniards who represent their country in the Thomas Cup international team event.
It is also well known that reigning world champion, PV Sindhu, often practices at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) against promising junior players, but rarely pits her badminton skills against the likes of Kidambi Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth, HS Prannoy and Sameer Verma, who make up the core of the Indian national men’s team.
Despite her height, reach and power, Sindhu would be found wanting in the speed and power departments against the top stalwarts.
The inescapable conclusion is that, in badminton at least, the male players are physically far stronger, and have too much speed and power (and possibly, greater stamina) for women players of an equivalent age, even if the men have a far inferior BWF ranking. It would hence appear that the concept of “mixed singles” as a proper international event would be a non-starter.
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