Good, better, beast. Reigning World Champion PV Sindhu can operate on any of those three modes, while historically, continuing her steady march deep into the treacherous draws of a big tournament. You’d struggle to know which.
Watching the unbelievably athletic Indian get done, the job of winning big matches, more times than not, is akin to a first-timer marvelling at their maiden spectator outing at a F-1 paddock and seeing those dizzy frat-mobils whiz past your vision – never mind the relative +/-mph of those speedy cars.
The blur of Sindhu’s absolutely bullying performance lingers, tinyurl-ed into a neat straight-sets scoreline for posterity as the jamboree of her wins moves forth. On Thursday it was a 21-14, 21-18 choke-hold over her mini-nemesis Pornpawee Chochuwong, where the Thai was induced into so many errors struggling to find her length, that the Indian looked like she barely broke sweat.
Except on Sindhu’s good-better-beast scale, this would rank as a middling ‘better.’ Against Tai Tzu Ying in the quarterfinals at Huelva, she’ll need to hit beast-mode – 20 percent more – a super-human expectation out of arguably India’s finest all-time athlete, who’s already achieved more than anyone from her country. But also one who, owing to being world-class, can realistically max her performance at the highest stage season after season.
The speed at which Sindhu brought Chochuwong down to her knees – the Thai whacking her racquet against the court in sheer frustration looking like a MMA fighter tapping out – might well be one gear tad too slow against the Taiwanese ace and her fistful of magic tricks. Tai Tzu will return the shuttle a second quicker, and with hexing spins on it, that will demand quicker reactions. Sindhu ofcourse has inbuilt speedometers in her mind and toes and at the elbow-snaps which crank up pace accordingly. But unbeknownst to the untrained eye, a speed upgrade will be called for against the Olympic silver medalist from Chinese Taipei.
The endurance levels into the 20th return of any rally will get tested against the top opponent, whose deceptive shots beckon those quick reflexes from opponents, and any fading of energy gets punished with her racquet frame charging thwack.
Chochuwong was spraying it all over in the opener, and the first set-lead eventually overwhelmed her in the end. But when the Thai sprung up from 17-12 down to closing the gap at 19-18, the tiniest of tremors of tiredness glazed over Sindhu’s eyes. The Indian would out-class Chochuwong in the next three points to broker no more defiance. But she won’t expect Tai Tzu to offer just a handful of cross-courts in repartee like Chochuwong did, while prolonging rallies. Tai Tzu is known to test retinal faculties and limbs a touch more than the Thai.
So it is this imperceptible higher gear that Sindhu will need to hit on Friday. More power in her smashes, that looked absolutely effective against Chochuwong, but will be picked by Tai Tzu. More sting and finesse in her strokes because the margin of error when up against Tai Tzu (compared to the Thai) is like the difference in shooting’s 9.8 and 10.8 on the vernier callipers. Less fading on stamina, should Tai Tzu stir up an early storm.
Rust, rest, roast?
The Asian Games final of 2018 (21-13, 21-16) and the Tokyo Olympics (21-18, 21-12) semifinal are the two biggies where Tai Tzu Ying really punctured a formidable PV Sindhu legacy-sheet, deflated the reigning World champion’s hot wheels, flying on asphalt.
But the 14-5 head to head skew in favour of the Taiwanese gives no indication of how much heartbreak Sindhu has inflicted on her. A third of matches the Indian might’ve won, but context is everything here. At Tai Tzu’s rawest best at the 2016 Olympics and at her pickled perfectest in 2019 World Championships, Sindhu denied her rival precious medals, playing perhaps her most accomplished games – offensively and defensively at Rio and Basel.
More pertinent is perhaps Tai Tzu’s almighty mental demon of 5 quarterfinals out of 5 times she’s been at the World’s. She’s lost to Olympic champions Xuerui Li in 2013 and Carolina Marin in 2014, and braked in the Last 8 by Lindaweni Fanetri (2015), He Bingjiao (2018) to keep her curiously away from the World podium. When even a bronze eludes you so, the threshold starts to appear steeper than it might be. But Sindhu’s 2019 takedown of Tai Tzu, a masterclass in strategy and cerebral savagery – perhaps her best match of her career – means Tai Tzu remains medalless at World’s.
She’s arrived in Huelva well-rested, after Olympics, and Kirsty Gilmour only just scraping off some of the rust in the second-set scare where Tai Tzu had one of her brainfades, squandering 6 match points. Sindhu revels in kicking these typical error-doors open, and has a grudge to settle from the Olympics. Unlike Gilmour, Sindhu won’t sit back. She’ll drive the knife in at the first chance, if she isn’t already grabbing herself a lead, and then imposing her big game already.
There’s also the matter of controlling the exuberance of the geese-feathers from the faster side of the Huelva arena. Tai Tzu can go woefully wrong controlling the shuttle when it whizzes with the draft. Chochuwong completely fobbed the baseline shots, straying long and wide and barely threatening Sindhu. And Tai Tzu has a history of being trapped into these brainfreezes.
Sindhu starts favourite
Sindhu starts as favourite against Tai Tzu based on this history, not so much her outing in the Chochuwong match, where a decider might’ve frayed open some loose distress threads.
Mentally, she has an edge over Tai Tzu as the World’s is her holster from a John Wayne western – she’s always suited up, never out of ammo, and the whole movie goes around in a loop for the Indian.
She peaked at the Olympics in 2021, and unlike previous World Championships, she’s not had a solid month of preparation – in her case that’s training – not 5 semifinals of competitions. The next year has All England and Asiad – the two titles she doesn’t have, and basic periodisation would dictate she’ll load up for Birmingham. Yet, it’s not in Sindhu’s muscle memory to fade-off.
Yet, Tai Tzu is in Huelva for the one title the world has conspired – mostly by playing well – to keep away from her. There is pride in winning a World title for Taiwan, and she’s not likely to cave in, even if the two most lethal words are staring her in the face: Sindhu and quarters.
So the Indian will need her beast-mode to quell this super-charged ambition. Sindhu’s power and pace can’t bully Tai Tzu or dump pressure on her. Her aggression won’t make her quiver. Yet, merely good and better might not suffice here. The beast-mode will need activation.