Tai Tzu Ying is the trick question PV Sindhu and coach Park Tae Sang have been preparing for over the greater part of the past three months. In the absence of reigning Olympic champion Carolina Marin, the Chinese Taipei player has marked herself as Sindhu’s ‘rival No 1’, according to Park. On Saturday, they face each other in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics semi-finals to decide which of them will be in the running for gold.
Sindhu banished the final trace of Japanese presence in the badminton draw, with a win over fourth seed Akane Yamaguchi in the quarterfinals, while Tai doused the spirited Thai charge of Ratchanok Intanon in a three-game thriller. What we’ve seen of Sindhu so far in Tokyo is a composed exterior, the ability to vary her pace and remain unfazed in the face of a fightback. She still carries the aggression we saw in Rio, only five years later, it’s more measured and less reckless. Tai’s guile – her forehand flicks, the ability to hold the bird for a second longer in the air and use her supple, almost invisible wrist action to pull off a last-second surprise angle, makes her a particularly bothersome opponent. Sindhu currently trails her 5-13 in the head-to-head, and has lost the last three times they’ve played against each other.
But this is the Olympics, and few current women’s singles players (with the exception of Marin) can match Sindhu in sheer-bloody-mindedness of owning the occasion. Tai, despite being ranked No 1 in the world for an impressive 148 weeks, still has no medal to show for it at the Olympics or World Championships. At the Rio Games, Sindhu had beaten Tai in the pre-quarterfinal stage. In the 2019 World Championships too, which the Indian went on to win, Tai ended up on the losing side in the last-eight stage.
Tai thrives on winning points on her strokes and Sindhu will have to use pace and hand-speed, keep the shuttle in play and not allow her opponent wriggle room to dictate the contest. When robbed of the opportunity to unleash her natural game and stroke flair, Tai can crack and stumble into errors. Sindhu will come into Saturday’s semi-finals as the slightly more well-rested, and while the contest is somewhat evenly poised, the Indian’s big-match temperament could work as a huge advantage.
The other semifinal will be an all-Chinese affair between Chen Yufei and He Bingjiao. The two losing semi-finalists will meet in a bronze medal playoff.
Should Sindhu crack the Tai puzzle, she will be favourite for gold.