Tai Tzu-Ying’s reverse-sliced backhand that shapes up to travel at a 45 degree cross-court angle but goes dead straight, is the cleverest con pulled off in Denmark since two weavers convinced the emperor he was draped in the finest clothes.
Outwitted by the uncanny strokes produced by her opponent’s wrist was Saina Nehwal in the Denmark Open Super 750 finals on Sunday. Losing to Tai Tzu often has an air of inevitability for most opponents. But the 13-21, 21-13, 6-21 loss had a brief phase of 22 minutes in the second game when Saina looked capable of ending the 10-match losing streak against the Taiwanese.
However, on either side of those 22 minutes, Tai Tzu was straight out of Hans Christian Andersen’s compulsive fairy tales – her day poised to end well as she dictated both pace and placement.
But first, Saina’s resistance that makes her 13th loss, 11th on a trot, a shade different than all the other ones: Tai Tzu later admitted she was made to work hard.
Saina had entered the court with a plan backed by better fitness than the last two years, and buoyed by her results over the last few days. Saina was looping the lifts to the back court, but had conceded a biggish lead to start with in the first set midway. While Tai Tzu’s perennial disguised shots were working their magic, the Indian wasn’t backing off from fast-paced mid-court exchanges and resisting the onslaught with a couple of body smashes that declared her intent. But as happens always, Tai Tzu would wrap it up with a flurry.
The score read 21-13 but no one in the Odense stadium believed that this was finishing in a hurry. For Saina was tangling the puppeteer Tai Tzu’s strings, one knot at a time. This would typically involve high deep lifts which would send the Taiwanese scrambling to the back line. To her credit, Saina was striking the right length and would later evoke some indecision in a player who revels in seeing befuddlement in opponents’ legs.
Tai Tzu was kept busy guarding her deep backhand and Saina would even gift herself a rasping return of serve, a vicious return of the weak, short serve, and go into the break on a high. Parupalli Kashyap, talking to her at the end of Game 1, would tell her she was playing well, and needed to keep moving Tai Tzu front and back, ration the cross-courts and slow drops, using them when needed.
Set 2 sent Tai Tzu into a mini disarray.
There was a charging smash at 4-2, and a sliced variation at 6-3 after a long rally. For all that’ve watched Saina struggle in fitness the past two years (though a Worlds and Asiad bronze were pocketed in the interim), her retrieving was a throwback to her fittest days. In fact, she didn’t harry around mindlessly, but looked for the kills and the set-ups keeping pace with Tai Tzu’s pace of thought and strokes.
For three points from 13-8 to 15-8, Saina’s high clears aggravated Tai Tzu so bad that she started either leaving the shuttle praying it would fly out or hacked at it wildly sending it wide herself.
Additions to the game
All this time, Saina was retrieving beautifully, and there was a promise of low net picks and crosses – shots that look recent additions to her game. At 16-9, Saina would roar with a feral might, and at 17-9 she was truly fired up unwilling to cede inches. Making Tai Tzu run circles – though even her defence elicits wonderment – Saina would get the crowd on its feet with a backhand push giving her an identical 21-13 scoreline.
Yet, Saina is 28. Saina is nearing the end of a tough season. Saina needs her body to back a mind that’s computing at its best. And the strain of Game 2 would chip at her energies. There was a whiff of an upset, but a gust of Tai Tzu upping the ante and packing it all in, blew Saina away in the decider. Those 22 minutes seemed eons away.
But you can’t blame Saina for not being ready for a shot that is disrupting the rules of physics – no one sees Tai Tzu’s shots coming, until everyone suddenly does.
Former international Aparna Popat calls it getting a jigsaw of 400 pieces right every single time – this challenge of beating Tai Tzu. “Fine, if not 400, at least 42 pieces, 21 for each set, every time. See, a tactic that works now against her might not work the next moment. So, even if the overall riding theme could be to keep Tai Tzu to the back court, there is no way that’ll work through the match. People have no clue where the shuttle will go, she’ll hit clockwise, anticlockwise, straight, cross, slow, fast. Her wrist is so good, and she’ll pull things out of the hat. So once she gets a handle on the strategy, it’s trouble again,” she said.
Hitting to the back sure cuts down Tai Tzu’s options – though it’s all relative, for if she has seven options for one forecourt net position, she might have only three from the back. That’s three too many in most cases.
But scrambling ceaselessly as Saina did on Sunday is tough to sustain and she will need to be fitter than this to take this strategy to its logical conclusion.
Hitting high lifts also made sense to Popat because that meant making Tai Tzu wait under the shuttle. “Also, the trajectory of the shuttle coming down on the head means it slows down, and it’s tougher for Tai Tzu to hit it back in a direction she wishes to,” she says. The sting on the flat shots is effectively killed, and Saina was consistently getting the length perfect on a court with manageable drift.
While both Sindhu and Saina have been looking for ways to beat Tai Tzu-Ying, Aparna Popat reckons that while Saina’s variety needs to be dug into, Sindhu will need to use her deadly height. “I think the way to go against Tai Tzu is playing like men’s doubles. Put relentless pressure, smash, push, smash this, smash that. Playing short, quick, short, quick might bring her down,” she says.
Saina did it partly. “I had to focus on every point. Her game put a lot of pressure on me, and I had to adjust,” Tai Tzu said. Against the backdrop of the loss, all of this will be a footnote. A longish footnote though, seen Saina’s way.