PV Sindhu played the best World Championship match of her career, yet, on Friday, when she successfully tamed the wild talent and trickery of Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying who even after this win, leads the Indian 10-5 in head-to-head. She meets China’s Chen Yufei in the semis.
It was a masterclass in taking the attack to the opponent and countering her sorcery – making it look fallible and exposing its delicate vulnerability. The 12-21, 23-21, 21-19 win had all the elements that could unsettle Tai – Sindhu’s majestic powerplay, a new-found confidence in her stroke-making, the age-old grit and ability to hang in there as if it’s the most obvious and only logical thing.
Bulldozing works against Tai, as was seen in Rio. Bulldozing though, is difficult to humanly sustain, when Tai has acquired solidity and patience and stamina to herself last 3 sets and fight till the end bitterly. So, Sindhu needed to supplement the power with intelligent discretion of when to unleash it. She started miserably – and Tai was floating and stinging on the court with all the grace and authority as she raced to 21-12.
It was the finest lull Sindhu could snare her into – convincing her that she only had to turn on the magic switch, pick any delectable strokes of her choice and points would fall into place suitably. “First game I played, but it just happened I gave her a huge lead. I wanted to cover it, but she maintained the lead,” Sindhu would shrug it off, like some dust from her sleeve. Tai was playing the full range of her strokes – at the net, the blocks, the drops and cute lobs that rolled slowly just to look mighty pretty, and emboldened from scything through Sindhu’s crosscourt game and assuming Sindhu was caving in.
Sindhu’s only error in the second set that was as near-perfect as it gets, was in exhausting her reviews too early. She missed them later on, but she was about to mount a blitz and nothing could stop her really. From 5-8 down, Sindhu would start rapidly rappelling up, first hassling Tai away from the net and sending her back with her punch clears.
Now, Basel with no air-conditioning, are slow courts – exceedingly to Sindhu’s liking. What this means is all of Tai’s deceptions would travel a tad slow, giving Sindhu a second extra while reading them and reacting. The tosses were anyway bending Tai’s back and Sindhu got seriously explosive at this stage, and attacked fiercely. Tai’s response to most challenges is to be clever – but being clever comes with risks of erring on the trick-shots. Tai would get tangled in her own web.
“First game against Sindhu, Tai was really aggressive, playing all her strokes and in her elements in terms of strokeplay. But the moment Sindhu was able to create some doubt and hit some smashes through her, that’s when Tai started to look at length a little more and that’s when she made some errors at the base of the court,” coach Gopichand would say.
From 5-8 down, Sindhu would blast through the next three points and set the trend for the remainder of the match where she kept Tai at bay, prising errors out of her as she fought to accept the tide was turning. It was a fightback of every point, and though Tai had the opener pocketed, she increasingly grew weary of Sindhu retrieving everything and not showing signs of plummeting. Coupled with this, was Sindhu’s responses that are smartening up coaxed by Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun who is forcing her to think.
“Sindhu’s variations on defense at right times helped. And also couple of times she was clever enough to play it at the back of the net and repeat the back court strokes. Those things helped her. It was not anything but the fact that at regular intervals Sindhu could hit a couple of big ones which actually from nowhere broke Tai’s defense. They made her a little uncomfortable in trying too many deceptive strokes or trying to hit over Sindhu very sharply,” Gopichand added.
It’s one thing to know Tai is deceptive and relentless retrieving can break her. But quite another to follow up on it. It needs some of her simplified thinking. “Second set it was going very equal and it was anybody’s game but I never lost confidence and I kept fighting and I won. 3rd set also she had lead, but I still had hope that anything can happen and that kept me going. 18-all, anybody’s game and you had to be patient and just keep shuttle in court,” Sindhu would say.
What gave her confidence from that 21-12 first set drubbing was how a few of her strokes went to Tai’s mid-court and muddled her mind. Sindhu’s enduring philosophy is: “We never know anything can happen any moment. You Just have to be there,” she said. She’s been hanging in there for half a dozen finals. On Friday against a tricky opponent, she made the scrambling count. By the third set, Sindhu had totally scrambled Tai’s mind, and the early part saw her get the better of dribble exchanges which further cornered Tai. The Taipese former World No 1 used her check shots generously — the ones where her racquet locks the pace on the shuttle. But while Sindhu had been falling short to reach in the opener, now gradually, she was picking the pulled-back strokes. More importantly like on game point in the second, Sindhu’s strokes themselves were coming off with some conviction – she had three tentative-looking blocks and floaters to three corners while the fourth shot was an attack on Tai’s body.
In the decider, snapping at Tai’s heels at 9-11, Sindhu sent down a scorcher of a smash at 340 kph which would’ve rattled Tai and reminded her of Rio carnage when Sindhu was bludgeoning. Reverse slices and drops from Sindhu and those shots that pinned Tai back got her to commit to tricks, which under pressure crumpled into errors and ousted her from the quarters of the World Championship. Tai Tzu Ying’s brand of sorcery makes her a bete noire for half the world. But Sindhu’s the demon that’ll give Tai nightmares in the coming years. First there was the Olympics, and now this.