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PV Sindhu smashes past biggest hurdle in quest for elusive World Championships glory

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

PV Sindhu and Tai Tzu Ying have a commonality they're racing to get rid of - neither have won a gold medal at the World Championships or the Olympics. There's a tiny difference though. Tai has hinted at putting herself on a clock.

Earlier this year, the World No. 2 Chinese Taipei star alluded to retiring after the Tokyo 2020 Games. She's just 26. A Borg-esque call, if she does eventually go through with it. Eleven-time Grand Slam champion Bjorn Borg, who went into a surprise retirement at 26, regretted not winning the US Open even once despite 10 appearances, including four finals. Similarly, Tai, a five-time quarterfinalist, hasn't medalled at the Worlds.

On this count, Sindhu towers head and shoulders above Tai.

On Friday, with her 12-21, 23-21, 21-19 win over Tai and a semi-final entry, Sindhu walked into history - with the most number of medals by an Indian at the World Championships. She's tied with Chinese Olympic champion Zhang Ning on the all-time highest count of five medals. Sindhu has two silver medals from the previous two editions and as many bronze medals, winning the first one back in 2013.

It's also Sindhu's second win in nine months over Tai (the previous one coming at the World Tour Finals in December 2018) and takes their head-to-head record, skewed in favour of the Chinese Taipei player, to 10-5.

Speaking after the win, Sindhu said, "I'm happy that I beat Tai because she's doing really well and she's such a deceptive player." Calling five medals at the Worlds 'a special feeling', Sindhu added that "it's not over yet".

When the match began, Tai was masterful in her deception in the opening game -- her purpose, intensity, touch and slice drop-shots vexing Sindhu in equal measure and pushing her into fluffing her lines. It was a study in contrast.

In fact, it was much like the Indian coach's corner - an effervescent Kim Ji Hyun cupping her palms against both sides of her mouth and barking instructions while Pullela Gopichand sat monk-like, unmoved. Tai's impeccable line judgement, searing the shuttle deep as Sindhu waited, prayed, hoped it landed adrift before watching it graze the line, aghast, gave her a handy 16-9 lead in the first game. Sindhu was now throwing looks of despair at her coaches, almost mentally miming: How do I beat that?

She would have to wait until the second game for a resurrection.

The swivel in momentum was apparent at the start of the second. Sindhu was now more purposeful in her movement, gazelle-like on her feet, bullying Tai to all ends of the court and forcing her into errors. Tai's backhand drop sinking into the net was the survival call Sindhu was searching for at the end of a 38-shot rally. Triumph after a protracted rally can just flick a switch somewhere. It did. Suddenly, Sindhu was dictating the pace of play, much to the discomfort of Tai.

But you can't possibly wish away Tai's absolutely marvellous racket head control -- an attribute that even had former Danish great Morten Frost gushing. It was beauty in motion: her racket did a wriggle as she went for a lift before deftly transforming it into a delightful backhand drop shot for a parity call at 13-13.

Sindhu carried her superb leaves and body smashes from the closing stages of the second into the decider. The World No 5 Indian grew belligerent, unleashing monstrous smashes, befuddling Tai with reverse slices and shrieking her way through a lead.

It's what Sindhu does best: Raise her game at top-level tournaments. She's only dropped one game so far in the tournament. It has also helped that Tai has, since the start of the year, dropped her cloak of invincibility and fallen from her No. 1 perch.

Sindhu will now have to worry about her semi-final opponent: World No. 3 Chen Yufei. She could draw comfort from a dominant, 5-3 record against her. With World No. 1 Akane Yamaguchi ousted and Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin yet to recuperate from an injury, Tai appeared to be Sindhu's trickiest hurdle. Now, that's out of the way.

"Marin and Yamaguchi aren't there but the top 15 players in the women's circuit are almost of the same standard," Sindhu told ESPN. "There have been quite a few upsets in this tournament so it's just down to who plays well on that day."

She also admitted to 'having a good record' against Chen but said that she 'can't presume it's going to be easy'. "I have to put thoughts of my dominant record against her behind me and just treat this as a fresh match."

If Tai does call time as early as she'd hinted, she may have to live with the unrequited pursuit of a Worlds medal. As for Sindhu, who has had a fairly quiet year so far, this might be her time to raise the roof.