Updated: August 1, 2021 6:32:33 am
Tai Tzu-Ying calmly walked to the centre of the court, folded her hands and bowed, as if asking PV Sindhu’s permission before making her a prop in her magic show.
That little act of politeness was all Sindhu would get from her Taiwanese opponent. For the next 40 minutes, Sindhu was pushed from one corner of the court to another, lunging and bending in her desperate attempts to stay alive in points. But when Tai is in a mood like she was in during the Tokyo Olympics women’s singles semi-final on Saturday, very few are able to resist.
The look on Sindhu’s face after her 21-18 21-12 defeat to Tai conceded as much. The Rio Olympics silver medalist will face another tough, and vastly different, opponent in China’s He Bingjao for a bronze medal on Sunday. But the harder task will be to shrug off Saturday’s defeat.
“This is a bit sad,” Sindhu said. “I will have to recover from this and come back stronger tomorrow.”
As she did against Akane Yamaguchi in her quarterfinal, Sindhu started from the slower side of the court, trying to use the drift in her favour in the opening game. It worked for a while as Tai did not find her range immediately – the Taiwanese’s shots sprayed wide and long as she struggled to gain control over the shuttle. But at no point was she troubled, even though Sindhu might have been led to believe that she was in control of the first game. Then she decided to turn the screws on the Indian.
She didn’t nail Sindhu by deftness alone: Tai unleashed some powerful smashes (one travelled as fast as 358kmph), tangled up the Indian with a few fierce body shots, which Sindhu couldn’t swerve past like she did against Yamaguchi, and produced some outrageous drop shots. Like she did when the score was 16-14 in Sindhu’s favour –Tai pretended to hit a powerful return from the backcourt, changing her grip mid-air and caressing the shuttle such that it kissed the net while dropping at Sindhu’s forecourt.
Until that moment, Sindhu felt like she hadn’t allowed Tai to get into any sort of a rhythm. But the East Asian shuttler was only getting warmed up. She followed up that point with a flat smash – which appeared more like a hard push – to Sindhu’s backhand and then played a classic drop on the forehand to make it 16-16.
She operated on a different gear from that point and clinched the opening game 21-18.
It was tough to be in Sindhu’s shoes with her 27-year-old opponent showcasing supernatural powers. She was getting boomeranged. At 4-3 to Sindhu in the second game, Tai played a drop shot to the forecourt, Sindhu retrieved it with a long lunge and quickly returned to the centre to receive the next – this sequence played out thrice in a row and the fourth time, Tai waited till the very last second to flick it to the opposite side. Sindhu made a desperate attempt but couldn’t reach.
On other occasions, she would push the Indian to the rear-court on the backhand, and then unleash sharp, dipping shots close to the net. The constant running around was energy-sapping just to watch, although Sindhu would later say she didn’t feel like she was being pushed around so much.
“It wasn’t like I was running around a lot. Yes, she has deceptive strokes and maybe because of her anticipation that impression might have been created,” Sindhu said.
The points would start with a loud “hi-yaah!” by Tai, which would echo around the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, and end with a wondrous “haai” from the commentators, who could barely believe the quality of stroke-play from the Taiwanese player.
The manner in which Tai played on Saturday was everything joyous there is about badminton. The daring of trying something unimaginable, attempting audacious shots means Tai generally is the poet of her own fall during matches. She is acutely aware of this.
“Most mistakes are from my side,” she said when asked about a string of past quarterfinal exits. “That’s why I am under pressure. It’s from within.”
After Saturday’s semi-final, both Sindhu and Tai agreed on one thing: the latter’s errors were almost non-existent, especially in the second game.
“She didn’t make many unforced errors,” Sindhu said. Tai added: “That’s why I was not under pressure in this match as I used to be. I felt a little paranoid in the middle of the competition but for this game, I didn’t feel as paranoid.”
There were hardly any long rallies or lofted shots. Tai kept the rallies short and quick, stabbing at the shuttle, which made it tougher for Sindhu to lift. The Indian struggled to dominate the rallies, having been preoccupied simply by finding ways to return, and could not stage a comeback.
Tai finished the match in the same way she controlled the 71 points played to that point. She drew to the front and then hit a sharp dipping shot to the backcourt. Formalities complete, she walked to the centre of the court, folded hands, bowed and calmly walked off.