Unpredictable Tai Tzu Ying stands between Sindhu and historic gold

Over the next few hours, the brightest minds in Indian badminton will try to unravel the mysteries of PV Sindhu's opponent for the final of the Asian Games.

Good luck.

Tai Tzu Ying defies convention. It is rare for Taiwan to produce a player like her. Typically, the badminton players from the country are survivors, the sort who have managed to progress on sparse courts and limited finances. Government funding for the sport is miniscule compared to their massive neighbours west across the Taiwan sea. Journalists say most players are self-funded.

As such, the country has produced players who have endured but not excelled. They are solid but unspectacular, grinding out the odd victory amidst losses.

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally|

Tai is anything but unspectacular.

It is difficult to place the style of the 24-year-old from Kaohsiung. She has the work rate and stamina of the Japanese, the matching six pack of the Europeans, and the grit of the Chinese. On top of that, she has the supple wrists, fluid movements and athletic creativity that's all her own.

"She's a complete player," is Saina Nehwal's blunt assessment. For 36 minutes on Monday afternoon, Saina was at the receiving end of a Tai masterclass. Saina is no rookie, yet had few answers during her 21-17, 21-14 quarterfinal loss at the Stadium Istora.

Saina hasn't beaten Tai since 2013. The latter was only 19 years old then. She wasn't callow, though.

In 2012, she had won her first Superseries title. Since then, Tai has added another 11. Then, when the Superseries format was replaced by the World Tour this year, she won another four tournaments.

One point into Saina's semifinal against Tai, it is clear how the rest of the match will pan out. Saina is worked through one diagonal, then the other. She is pulled forward and sent back. Tai shapes to keep the shuttle long and Saina hesitantly leaves her weight back and tries to get forward. A tap winner follows.

It's a pattern that repeats itself over the entire match. Saina is constantly on the wrong foot. She toils manfully, but this is an opponent whose game is on a different level. That's the only predictable thing about the Taiwanese.

"You don't know how to play against her. Every rally is a different rally," Saina says. "There's no set pattern to how she plays. When I tried to hit to her backhand because she is so strong at the net, she would hit it behind me too. She'll hit it flat and drop it and because you are figuring out what to do, you get stuck in the middle."

Tai does more than win, she embarrasses her opponents. She moves Saina around the court at 3-1 in the second game and when the Indian expects a crosscourt shot, hits the shuttle flush on the top of her head. "She mixes up. You think she is doing one thing and then she does another."

There are other players like Tai out there, including former World Champion Intnanon Ratchanok. But Ratchanok, for all her languid strokes, often comes apart under sustained pressure. Tai, though, has different gears to her game. She turns it up a notch when Saina closes the gap in the second game.

"Even when you think you have got her, she has ways to get out of those situations. Sometimes she will play a stupid stroke, but that will get her out of trouble. And it doesn't really matter how the point comes from," Saina says.

Which isn't to say Tai is unbeatable. She isn't. It's just that most players like Saina simply don't have the tools to get the better of her, as a 35-2 record in favour of the Taiwanese this year would suggest. Saina says that may not be the case with Sindhu.

"She's got the advantage of height which allows her to play certain strokes which I can't."

Tai is also untested at the big stage. For all her dominance, she has never won at the World Championships or Olympics. She has won her five previous matches against Sindhu, but lost to the Indian during the quarterfinals of the Rio Games. The last match Tai lost this year also came where it mattered the most, in the quarterfinals of the World Championships.

One might expect her to be worried about those critical losses as she prepares for her showdown against the Indian. But once again, Tai perplexes.

"It's a sport," Tai says. "Those are just matches I lost. I'm not too worried about it. The Asian Games final is a new match for me."