What sorcery possesses Tai Tzu Ying's racket? Are her wrists insured? Spell-bound mortals must gape and wonder at the deceptive genius that is Tai Tzu Ying. You see her arc backwards and fling a half-smash that has PV Sindhu on all fours, staring at the floor. The Chinese Taipei player lets out a terrier-like growl and holds up a fist. Before you've wrapped your head around it, she holds the bird for a nano-second in the air and plays a flawless flick. Sindhu has her arm outstretched but the bird whizzes past her and lands well inside the backline. The Indian walks back slowly toward the back of the court, looking at the lifeless shuttle and wondering how it got there. It's just Tai things. Lot like an illusionist's tricks are beyond the perceptive abilities of their audience.
It's one of the reasons why former Indian player Aparna Popat has made it a habit to record some of Tai's matches at major tournaments. The second viewing of her favorite player is reserved for savouring the befuddling stroke play and trying to make sense of it.
Saturday's preview | Friday's recap | Key dates | Athletes | Medal tracker | Full schedule | Latest results
"Believe me, you can't see it when you're watching," she says. "The simple tosses that go past you very flat or even those flicks. She's flicking everything so it can be very annoying and stressful if you're playing her. The shuttles come to you really fast and you get jerks at every shot. The cross at the net she plays, they just slice right across and drop very fast. Even if you manage to get your racket under it, they are often so far out that you can't do much with it anyway."
During one of her PBL trips to India, Aparna sparred with Tai and recalls it being just as intense as watching her in a match. "She's someone who practices her strokes but she's free-spirited and it's almost like owns this huge spread color palette and just instinctively picks what to play." Tai doesn't fall into the easy mold of the Japanese tireless runners or aggression-oozing speedsters like Marin. If you can anticipate her, great. If not, too bad, there's no time to think. You've already missed it.
This is a particularly hungry Tai in Tokyo. She's chasing a maiden medal at an Olympic Games. Against Sindhu, she weaved a tapestry of shots in the semifinals on Saturday, throwing her off balance on many occasions, ill-positioned to shape up for a return. Tai hurled a torrent of straight smashes, found chinks in the Indian's improved body defense with a smash grazing her hip on the forehand side and some pick-your-jaw-off-the-floor round the head drops.
To allow players like Tai to settle into a rhythm can be like walking into a burning building. It's almost a point of no-return. Sindhu slipped into the cardinal error on Sunday, despite some decent efforts. Trailing 14-16 in the first game, Tai placed a slice drop delicately on the front court, catching the Indian by surprise. She would close out that game with a push to the back of the court and a down the line winner. Her floating movements and wizardry can be hard to pin down. She can force her opponents into indecision with the mid-air hold of the shuttle, pushing deep when they're planted on the front court, like she did to bring matters 18-10 in her favour in the second game.
"In an empty stadium in Tokyo, Tai's smashes must almost sound like slaps," adds Aparna. "I have to listen to it with earphones to enjoy that aural experience purely as a badminton fan. I haven't seen any player with cleaner smashes than Tai. Just the way she holds that shuttle in the air, and then the push, the timing of it is so impeccable. It's almost as if shuttle bhi uski sunti hai (shuttle also listens to her)."