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Women shuttlers raising the bar and gaining new fans

For at least the past decade, male shuttlers - and in particular, a select quartet in the singles category - have been carrying the sport and filling the stands at global tournaments.

But with the emergence of several leading ladies in recent years, the spotlight has turned to the women shuttlers.

Nowadays, a formidable force of young and successful women singles players is making a steady push at the summit of the world rankings - and is gradually becoming the draw in world badminton.

Among the top 10, there are those who have already made their mark at the Olympics, world championships and other major events, some of these achievements coming while they were still teenagers.

Hot on the heels of these proven champions - who are still in their early twenties - is a group of up-and-comers with their fair share of accolades.

The buzz in the women's game, evident this past week during the OUE Singapore Open at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, is something keenly felt by the Badminton World Federation (BWF).

  • Badminton's new leading ladies

  • TAI TZU-YING (TPE)

    •Age: 22

    •World ranking: 1

    •Major achievements: Won 2016 Dubai Superseries Final, 2017 All England Open, 2017 Malaysia Open.

    Tai won her first Superseries title at the Japan Open in 2012 at age 18, but her dominance started only when she became the top-ranked player after lifting the Hong Kong Open last November.

    Sporting six-pack abs now, she returned to the 2016 season having lost as much as 10kg, and says that it has done wonders for her game, especially when it comes to speed and recovery.

  • CAROLINA MARIN (ESP)

    •Age: 24

    •World ranking: 2

    •Major achievements: Won 2016 Olympics, 2014 and 2015 World Championships. The first Spaniard and first European in 15 years to claim the world title when she beat China's Li Xuerui at the 2014 edition, Marin would have become a flamenco dancer if not for badminton.

    She proved she was not a fluke when she retained the crown the following year. She struggled with a lower back injury after the Rio Games but has since rediscovered the form that took her to the top of the Olympic podium last year.

  • P.V. SINDHU (IND)

    •Age: 21

    •World ranking: 5

    •Major achievements: Silver at 2016 Olympics. Bronze at 2013 and 2014 World Championships.

    The child of former professional volleyball players, Sindhu is the protege of former Indian shuttler P. Gopichand, the 2011 All England champion.

    The young Sindhu travelled more than 50km every day to training, and has emerged from the shadows of 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal.

Thomas Lund, secretary-general of the sport's international governing body, told The Sunday Times that interest has especially grown in the last two years.

"The sense is that there is perhaps more excitement and interest around the women's singles right now, though the top men's singles players are still extremely popular," said Lund, himself a two-time doubles world champion for Denmark.

"There are question marks over whom the next stars are going to be in men's singles, whereas the women's category has stars.

"Even last weekend at the Malaysia Open (where Lee Chong Wei met Lin Dan in the men's singles final), the match of that tournament was the women's singles final."

The men's singles event has struggled to unearth shuttlers who are capable of matching the star power of badminton's "Golden Quartet": Denmark's Peter Gade, Indonesia's Taufik Hidayat - both retired - as well as Lee and Lin, both in the twilight of their careers.

The women's competition, on the other hand, has had no shortage of talent, helped by the intriguing factor that many do not hail from traditional badminton powerhouse China.

According to those within the fraternity, fans began to take note from 2013, when Thai Ratchanok Intanon sensationally toppled China's 2012 Olympic champion Li Xuerui at the world championships.

Carolina Marin, from the relative outpost of Spain, then snared the world title the following two years.

Both were first-time winners for their respective countries.

Said Lund: "I think what people also like is that it's a diversity of countries. You've got eight to 10 players that are up there - it's a breath of fresh air.

"It's such a great dimension. You've got a whole medley of players now and all of them have varying personalities also."

The players match their off-court character with on-court prowess.

According to veteran officials, the women's game has evolved in recent years to adopt an attacking style similar to the men's and which is popular among spectators.

Xie Zhihua, who coaches Ratchanok, said the approach of old featured what is termed "four-sided play" in Mandarin - players maintaining control at the net while pushing their opponents to the four corners of the court, a style that was long-drawn and less thrilling.

"Many players now adopt an attacking, power game," said the veteran Chinese coach.

"And that's made the women's game a lot more exciting and competitive."

It means even those at the top - despite being in their prime and peak form - constantly feel challengers breathing down their necks.

Said India's Olympic silver medallist P.V. Sindhu: "It's hard. You need to be prepared for anything at tournaments. Everyone in the top 20 is playing really well and matches are tough from the first round."

But it is a welcome challenge for world No. 1 Tai Tzu-ying of Chinese Taipei.

She said: "For me, this is better. It means people will want to come play, come watch, and think that in badminton there's a possibility to do well.

"You don't think that you'll never be able to beat someone or some country.

"Competition is more interesting, and it's good news."

May Chen