Back in December when in practice ahead of the junior nationals, Adita Rao twisted her leg, hurt a ligament and suffered a side strain. The trauma was fresh, and the worrying about aggravating it persistent. Yet, there is the natural speed in her feet – honed in the last six months, but perhaps inherited from her athlete mother – that has propelled her into the semifinals of the Badminton Senior Nationals at Balewadi.
It was the foot-speed that helped her negate the big game of the talented and fit Ira Sharma in the quarterfinals, as she made a surprise run into the last four alongside Aakarshi Kashyap, Ashmita Chaliha and Anupama Upadhyay. Reading her opponent’s game and using her own quick reach at the net with an effective lunge, Adita, seeded third, would win in straight games 21-16, 21-15.
The Thane girl, who now trains in Anand (Gujarat) at coach Amrish Shinde’s academy, is herself surprised at how her game has held up, though she’s begun popping painkillers by the quarterfinals stage. “After I tripped in practice, there was that fear when striding. But I’m surprised and happy at how I’ve been playing. It’s the speed that’s brought me till here,” she says.
A struggler for most of her junior years, it was serendipity that kept her in badminton and took her to Anand. She started playing at age 11 in Thane under Shinde, but soon the Railways coach moved to Hyderabad at the national camp to hone his own coaching skills. Meanwhile, Adita, 13 then, switched academies in Mumbai, travelling to Goregaon to train. Her career was dawdling away when Shinde returned to set up an academy in Gujarat. Adita would follow a full seven years after she first started training with him.
This time in 2021, the training would be more rounded and focus on accentuating her strengths. Her mother, the original sprinter in the family, would leave a lucrative corporate job to move to Anand with her. “For my speed, I do a lot of cardio and running. I’m a bit of a gym freak,” she says, adding, “though I hate running. It’s not my cup of tea, but it has to be done.”
Fashioning herself after Carolina Marin, her favourite player, Adita says she almost wants to copy the Spaniard. “Not exactly copy because that’s tough, but I like playing aggressive like her and do shout like her on court!” she says. An attacking speedy shuttler, Adita is also a good improviser on court and known for her tenacity, and will fight till the last shuttle drops to the floor. “She’s quite tenacious. She’ll sprint, she’ll dive. She was always very hard-working,” Shinde commends.
Her smash is not shabby, and alongside the buzzing retrieving, Adita has quite the package of skills when moving into the seniors – the transitioning being the faltering step of most juniors. The foot-speed needed some upper body balancing. “She had speed, but not the upper body stability to go with that earlier. In the last six months, we’ve worked on that. That’s why the results are showing,” the coach says.
Adita plays Ashmita in the semifinals on Monday, possibly the toughest opponent in Pune and the title contender. “It will be very tough against Ashmita, and we’ll try our best that Adita stays level with her and then let’s see.”
Ashmita herself has the strokes, the attack and the international game pace that troubles opponents and outplays them literally. Adita will try to stave off the run of points that Ashmita can rack up.
Adita’s doctor doesn’t know she’s been on court, despite him warning her that it could take up to four months to fully recover from her injuries. “The coach said let’s try and Pune’s been a happy hunting ground for me. When I played my first senior ranking tournament here, I reached the finals. Now I’m in the semis. I’m feeling good about my attacking game,” Adita says, adding that she hopes she can hit yet another speed gear with her hand-speed which isn’t as quick as her feet- yet.
For someone who was barely Maharashtra Top 4 and would struggle to breach the quarters barrier in her junior days, the onset of a senior career has brought glad tidings. There are not many who eagerly wait to get going on the senior circuit, but Adita can’t wait to get started.
Aakarshi vs Anupama
Almora teenager Anupama made her first semifinal of the Senior Nationals on Sunday, after first making the quarters in 2019. “But I want a medal now,” she would insist. A swimmer initially, she would move to badminton seeing the exploits of Lakshya Sen.
“I used to be a swimmer. But there were no role models in swimming. Badminton had Saina (Nehwal) didi and (PV) Sindhu didi. And they won big trophies,” she would add, starting out under DK Sen before moving to Bangalore.
Anupama’s father Naveen played cricket, and was determined his children will have a well-rounded childhood revolving not just around academics. She likes watching tennis and is a huge (Novak) Djokovic fan. “I wanted my kids to have that balance in life so that studies wouldn’t lead to depression. In sport, your heart learns to take a hit and bounce back. Every day is a new day.”
The family would put up a small Decathlon net during COVID and Naveen would himself learn the sport just so he could impart training to his daughter. “I’m a joker of all trades, master of none. But I thought I should learn badminton so I could help her! COVID was a tough time for the family and I myself had a close call, landing in the hospital. But now everything is on track,” he would say.