BANGKOK — Behind the pink braces, pony tail and sweet smile lies a fierce, competitive athlete. It’s this side of Ratchanok Inthanon that powers a smash that can send the shuttlecock piercing the air at more than 124 mph.
The Thai teenager last week became the youngest badminton world champion in history, and the first Thai player to win a world title.
It’s the latest in a line of badminton firsts for Ratchanok, who has been playing the sport for almost as long as she can remember.
Born in Thailand’s poor northeast in 1995, Ratchanok — known among Thais as "May" — spent her early years next to furnaces in a confectionary factory in Bangkok’s western outskirts where her parents worked.
After school, she would run around the factory while her parents were busy scooping golden-color traditional Thai desserts from gigantic brass pans. To divert her attention from the boiling syrup and to keep her safe from cooking hazards, Kamala Thongkorn — the factory owner who was also her godmother — introduced Ratchanok to badminton at the age of 5.
Ratchanok studied the basics of the game for months before she got to hold the racket, and then had to wait for older kids to finish their daily practice before she could go on the court.