Flawless Tai Tzu Ying in a league of her own as PV Sindhu has no answers

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PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal managed to find some humor just before the medal ceremony of the women's singles badminton competition at the Asian Games.

"Actually my official jersey was a bit short and Sindhu's was a bit long. So we were laughing about that," Saina would say.

That was about all the fun Sindhu might have had on court in her final against Taiwan's Tai Tzu Ying.

The day had begun poorly for Sindhu right from the moment she stepped on to Stadium Istora. A Michael Buffer-type introduction had been made for both her and Tai, listing out their achievements.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he boomed. "Introducing first, she is the winner of the All England 2018, the Indonesia Open 2018, the Malaysia Open 2018, she is the reigning World Number 1. Tai Tzu Ying!"

He then moves on to Sindhu. "And her challenger, the runner up at the Olympics, runner up at the 2017 World Championships, the runner up at the 2018 World championships, PV Sindhu!!"

The announcer is simply being factual. He wouldn't have caught Sindhu probably cringing every time she heard her list of second place finishes listed out in order. And while there might have been hope that she would turn that streak around at Stadia Istora, it would soon be extinguished in the most comprehensive way possible.

Tai had taken 36 minutes to dismantle Saina Nehwal in the semifinals on Monday. She took two minutes less to set aside Sindhu's challenge 21-13, 21-16 in the final .

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally|

It wasn't as if Sindhu had come unprepared. The plan had been to try and engage Tai in rallies.

"If you keep the shuttle on the court, she will eventually make a mistake," Sindhu would say later. Easier said than done against a player who is currently on a completely different level to her opponents.

Within the first minute of the match, it was clear Sindhu's strategy would not be going according to plan. Tai moved her lanky opponent all around the court, finding multiple angles with no distinct change of her wrist. And then, with Sindhu guessing and tentative on the back court, Tai would drop the shuttle to the front. 1-0.

A similar working around the courts was followed by a smash between Sindhu's legs. 2-0. Within no time, she was up 5-0 and never lost the lead save for the opening point of the second game, which was won by Sindhu.

This is not just victory, but embarrassment. Tai is a magician but her tricks are cruel to watch if you are an Indian fan. Trailing 12-8 in the second game, Sindhu's frustration boiled over, as she swiped at a dropped shuttle in disgust. At 16-11, she shrieked in helpless rage. There was nothing to be done though. She looked to coach Pullela Gopichand for answers, but there were none.

"There really wasn't anything we could have done today. Sometimes you just learn from the other person and admire them," admits Gopichand.

Sindhu might be able to beat gritty Chinese players, fast Japanese with stamina and even stroke-filled players like Ratchanok from Thailand. Tai, though, is a combination of all that. "A complete player," is Saina's assessment.

The praise is even more effusive on Tuesday when Saina seems grateful simply for the option of not having to show up against her.

"There's no one of the same level as Tai. She's probably playing like how Taufik Hidayat used to play," she says. Saina reckons only a peak form Carolina Marin might be capable of threatening the Taiwanese. "She's the only one with the speed to trouble her."

It appeared Sindhu's only hope was perhaps that Tai would let the pressure get to her. For all her talent, Tai had never seen the finish line of a World Championships, Asian Games or Olympics in her career. Her last defeat to an Indian came in the pre-quarters of the Rio Olympics against Sindhu.

In Jakarta though, Tai never came close to conceding an upset. She has changed since the Rio Games. "The quality of her strokes was never in question, but she has become a lot more consistent now than she used to be."

There has been improvement since her last defeat, too. Following her quarterfinal exit at the World Championships (one of only two losses this year), Tai's coach Lai Chien-Cheng gave her a very simple bit of advice.

"I told her that she was the best player in the world and if she only played naturally, she couldn't be beaten," Lai told reporters.

Everything was done to keep Tai relaxed for the Asian Games. Instead of staying at the athletes village an hour's drive away, Tai would board at a hotel inside the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium complex. Home cooked food, including stinky tofu, was prepared for her. It is an acquired taste but one Tai apparently adores.

For the moment, the Indians can't seem to digest it. But they hope to do so in the future.

"You can't beat Tai Tzu with a couple of weeks practice like we had after the World Championships. You need to really train hard to try and get your strokes and your movement near her level," says Saina.