The invincibility needed to be broken, and it was inevitably PV Sindhu who channeled her vintage Olympic confidence and funneled renewed maturity into her approach, to get past World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying at the World Tour Finals in Guangzhou. The 14-21, 21-16, 21-18 victory in the tough group match ended a 6-match losing streak against the dominant shuttler from Chinese Taipei, whom the Indian had swept past in the pre-quarters of the Rio Olympics. Tai Tzu looked in visible discomfort in her movements, but Sindhu showed focus to get the job done, and reverse the tide that had been weighing her down against arguably the toughest opponent on the circuit.
The Guangzhou courts played notoriously slow, but PV Sindhu — through the course of her five big finals across the world — has proven that she can master any condition, and remain undeterred by the sluggish shuttle that’s tough to kill. The 24-year-old World No. 1, also the Asian games champion, has been particularly difficult to get past since she immersed herself in getting stronger and tightened her game and temperament in the last two years. Four of Sindhu’s past 6 losses have come in straight sets, with the Indian getting a marginal look-in at Australia in June 2017. At Guangzhou, wisened from reverses, Sindhu was ready for the champion. To be sure, she has had to dramatically alter her game while beating her. At Rio, Sindhu towered over Tai Tzu, using her power game.
Tai Tzu hadn’t been as fit back then, tended to play the charming game more than the gritty one, and was coming into the Olympics on the back of a ruckusing, triggered by disagreements with her federation. She wears two different sized shoes on her feet, and the confusion arose from the federation’s insistence on making her wear the official sponsors’ shoes, while she needed a customised pair. “Too tall, too strong,” Tai Tzu was left saying, dazed after her loss at Rio. The Guangzhou win for Sindhu was far more well-rounded.
Nothing amplified the enormity of the challenge better than Tai Tzu rushing to 19-14 in the opener. It was one of Tai Tzu’s outrageous shots — body turned back from the net, the wrist flicking the shuttle back magically to soar to the lead, pocketing the first set. To compound matters, Sindhu would offer an unforced error to hand her opponent the set at 21-14. While Sindhu’s second set aggression was a throwback to the Rio match, it needed more than her down the line smashes to level things on the court. Starting at 6-3, Sindhu would clinically push Tai Tzu back even as she threatened to close in at 10-12. “It was important to be steady and keep the shuttle in court,” Sindhu told the BWF later.
Why beating Tai Tzu is always a feather in the cap
Considered the world’s most dominant player owing to her wild, unmatched talent at deception, Tai Tzu Ying is the current World No 1. Blessed with a game that has flicks, drops and hoodwinking smash-attack, the Chinese Taipei champion is tough to get past, because she tends to play the shuttle late and can redirect its flight at the very last moment. Combined with superior fitness (though she’s nursing a niggle now), and ability to anticipate early, the World No 1 has been unconquerable for the Indians since Sindhu’s Rio Olympics silver. Tai Tzu has beaten Saina Nehwal 12 times in a row since March 2013, and Sindhu was beaten 6 times, dating back to the Rio Games. She had also ousted Saina from the Asian Games semis and Sindhu from a terribly one-sided finals at the Asian Games to give herself gold. Tai Tzu Ying is an early favourite for the Tokyo title two years hence, and perhaps the only one that Spaniard Carolina Marin fears.
“Because there are too many flicks and you need to ready and on your toes. At the last minute she will just change the stroke,” she would explain. No one normalises magic, makes it routine yet never humdrum, like Tai Tzu Ying in badminton. Watching the World No. 1 tends to be a week-long drive through Willy Wonka’s factory, but Sindhu decided to end the diabetic spell, choosing instead a tempering of the Guntur chilli sizzle.
Stretching the lead to 14-10, Sindhu would pounce on Tai’s struggling movements, and even briefly dazzle with a sharp crosscourt whack of her own. She even drew out a service error from Tai Tzu to clinch the second set at 21-16. She had learnt a few lessons, but wasn’t content altogether. “I am correcting mistakes but sometimes when I had to keep shuttle simply on the court, I have made some mistakes. Maybe if I would’ve corrected those, the first ‘game’ would’ve been different,” she said later.
In the decider, Tai Tzu would snout ahead 6-2 and go into change of court at 11-6 even. But it was here that Sindhu displayed renewed maturity in taking control of the situation without letting things dawdle towards a nervy close. There was a peach of a round the head crosscourt at 11-12, and she focused on picking points in a clutch. It was at 13-all that Sindhu pulled away, displaying intent in what tends to be a lulled phase in her matches. Sindhu has allowed destiny to drift at these junctures, but Thursday was different.
Even a semi-fit Tai Tzu is quite a handful, and Sindhu would rely on piling on pressure by denying her breathing space. Inducing errors and showing deft shot selection, Sindhu would get in her definitive smash at 19-15. Typical end-game chaos followed, with a challenge and a referral. But nothing could distract Sindhu from finishing it off to relentlessly keep the shuttle in the crosshairs till the match was won.
“It was a very good match, and even though i lost the first set, I gave my 100 percent and won second,” she explained. Her thinking was crystal clear. “In the third even though i was trailing 11-6, after the court changed I didn’t lose hope, I didn’t think it was over. Each point was important for me and if she took 1 point, I would take the next 3-4 points. It went on and suddenly I took a lead 17-13,” she said. Sindhu has been a sniff away from a win far too often, to know it’s never over till it indeed is.
One of Sindhu’s five major final losses had come at the year-ending Tour finals at Dubai last year. That had come after beating Akane Yamaguchi in the group-stage. On Thursday, Sindhu would complete consecutive wins against World Nos 1 and 2 on successive days. A loss forever looms close to her, but Sindhu has never lacked maturity in dealing with a loss. “I thought about it last night (beating Akane on Wednesday). But now I shouldn’t think about it. I should just play the way I have been, and think about positive things,” she would say, of the eternal sunshine of the Sindhu mind.