Victoria Kao sits in Chou Tien Chen’s corner during his matches. While the action is on, she is his chief supporter, egging him on; during intervals she sprints to his side and hands him whatever’s required – a drink, towel, change of shirt.
Her main role, however, is keeping him in peak physical condition – for she’s his physio.
It is unusual for a top player to have his physio rather than his coach courtside, but Chou is unique in this respect. The world No.2 is the only top player from a badminton powerhouse to rely on his own wits for tactical adjustments; considering that he just won two tournaments in three weeks, the approach seems to be working. It’s an approach that makes him and his small team stand out in the circuit, for nearly every other top player is seen deferring to the instructions of a personal or team coach.
The other exceptions in this regard are Michelle Li and Beiwen Zhang; with them, however, the issue is (or was) mainly of funding. Chou prefers not to have a coach because he believes the solutions to his on-court challenges are within himself.
“I need to focus to get a point, so it’s not about a coach, it’s about yourself,” says Chou. “The coach talks to you about your problem. I know my real problem. That is how I improve.”
Instead of a coach, Chou has a sparring partner who has been travelling with him since February. The world No.2 trusts his own reading of the game that allows him to decide training routines.
“We wanted the right person (for coaching),” says Kao. “But after we tried and tried, maybe he thought he can play by himself. He is also a coach, right? That’s one choice. Because he believes in God. He thinks faith can help him to fight. That’s very special,” says Kao, who has been with Chou since 2012.
So what exactly does Kao tell him during the intervals of each match?
“Just encouragement,” she says. “I ask: ‘Do you want to change your shirt?’ ‘Want to eat something, or have a sports drink?’ I’m a physical therapist, not a player. The reason why he wants me in the seat is because he can focus. I’m always quick to finish my service, so that he has more time to think about his game.”
Chou, compared to his contemporaries, has peaked late. He is 29 and having the season of his life. His performance in Indonesia was epic. He outlasted younger challenger Anders Antonsen in the 91-minute final after having spent an average of 76 minutes on court in each of his previous three matches. That he won the Thailand Open in the next fortnight is a tribute to his physical and mental fortitude.
“Every day we do a lot of repair on his body,” says Kao. “Physically, he is improving. Just a little, step by step. Repeat and repeat. Very slowly, very slowly, but he’s getting better.
“He’s getting better mentally. There’s still a lot of space to improve. Every day, we find one problem and set it right. We think even if we can improve by 1 per cent, we will do that. We need to improve, not stay here. Many young players are very strong, very fast, so we need to stay humble. He is 29, but he must be like a young player, keep learning.”
Perhaps the most arresting image from Chou’s epic Indonesia Open win was Kao and Chou crying a flood of tears. Kao is thankful for his win, but is already looking ahead.
“It was a beautiful treat, a beautiful experience. (But) It’s closed and finished. This week we should focus and start again. We can’t depend on that memory. Be happy, but stay focussed, pay attention.”