Anupama Upadhyaya made her second Senior Nationals quarters after 2019, but wasn’t content until she went on to win the title on Tuesday. There’s another medal, missing, which rankled. It set into motion a string of changes in her game that showed effect at the Nationals.
At the Junior Worlds, the team championship offered her an eye-opener: “Wo game ki level hai hi nahi (the game is not at that level)” said the Almora (Uttarakhand) teenager, who decided to take up badminton seriously after Lakshya Sen’s success, coached by his father DK Sen. She knew she needed another gear altogether to her game to succeed internationally.
“A 16-year-old Japanese won the World Juniors. I realised her strokes were at a different level of speed and strength. And it’s not like you need to have some great body mass physique. She was of normal build, but had great wrist power,” Upadhyay said. “It’s not just strokes in the first game. You need to be able to sustain that rally speed in the second and third games.”
Last year, she played Singaporean Yeo Jia Min, and was flattened in the second and third after winning the first quickly. “Ek game se kaam nahi chalega (Winning just one game won’t do).” One game isn’t enough to win. At the Nationals and against a particularly pugnacious fighter like Aakarshi Kashyap, Anupama would showcase the temperament needed to grab the third game, and finish the match.
While the timing of the Nationals hasn’t been ideal for the top players – a week before the German Open and a fortnight before All England, for those on the periphery of the international circuit, the domestic finale offered a chance to determine who is best in India and scalp a few big names.
Kiran George, a bright name in India’s next rung, packed off HS Prannoy in the opening round, though the veteran was iffy with a niggle. But the win displayed Kiran’s potential when playing a top international. “It was a really good win for me. He’s the top seed of the tournament, so beating him here is a big boost for me.
I want to break into the top 32 in the world, I’m still 50. But that’s my short-term goal,” he would say.
“Both of us know each other’s games. It’s not easy. He’s a very good player. But I knew his game because I’ve played him twice before. But at international level, it’s totally different with the drift. It’s so hard to play. But this was a confidence booster,” Kiran added.
The gulf in class is very evident, and the Bangalorean is aware of what it will take to bridge it. “I need to improve my defence to be able to compete at the top-15 level. I need to keep working on my game. It’s a long way to go. In international tournaments, they don’t give away easy points. In the top 30, nobody really gives away free points like they would here on the domestic circuit. It’s really different there. Everyone plays to win, there is the hunger, from the get-go it’s tough,” he says.
Kiran, who made the quarters in Pune, has a good attack – a sharp downward stroke and deception, and has developed a good dribble and net game in the last six months. “He needs a lot more work on his defence and his fitness needs to get better to play three long games at a faster pace,” says coach Sagar Chopda. His body language too needs bolstering, especially in matches when he can’t get away solely by attacking.
“He needs a push,” Chopda says of his desired temperament. He lost badly to Mark Caljouw after twice beating him, when his defence came under the pump. It’s what forced a doubling of efforts in defence.
For someone like newly crowned men’s singles champion Mithun Manjunath, who’s also in his sophomore year on the international circuit – he reached the early 30s in ranking – endurance and fitness are the big goals beyond the Nationals. He’s smart tactically, but also needs to avoid confrontation a tad, his coach Chopda reckons.
While he could stop two attacking shuttlers in Kidambi Srikanth and Priyanshu Rajawat by giving them no loose lifts, his immediate test will be at the upcoming German Open, where he runs into compulsive attacker Loh Kean Yew in the opener.
“Of late, he’s got confidence that when he’s moving well, he can win,” Chopda says of his trainee at the Padukone Academy. But massive fitness upgrades are in the offing if he wants to get consistent internationally.
For Rajawat, the Dhar player who’s a big hope from Hyderabad at the Gopichand academy, there’s a “10 percent stroke difference” in international players from what he encounters at the domestic level. He’s bettered his own pre-quarters performance at the Nationals by reaching the finals and is happy to return to the stadium where he narrowly lost the Khelo India semifinals.
“In higher tournaments, no one will leave the shuttle. And I have to improve my smashing power since that’s my game,” he says. He’s learnt to not allow his temper to mess with his game. “And I need to stay injury-free,” he says.
National coach P Gopichand, who has steered some of India’s top international careers to success, admits that while getting two world-class athletes from 100 was done, now that there are 10,000 playing the sport, India needs a pathway to help transitioning juniors into the seniors. “We need a better system and a structure that takes care of those that are coming up,” he says.
Earlier in the week, Prakash Padukone had urged players to not be satisfied with winning small events. “Effort should be to win more events, the next Thomas Cup, one more Olympics, you can’t be content till you retire. And you shouldn’t chase rankings, but look to win tournaments. Focus on big tournaments like Grand Slams. I don’t think even China, Denmark have the sort of facilities India is offering to talented players. They must make use of them,” he said.
“They should also not play tournaments unless they are completely fit,” he added. “Try to peak for the big tournaments, I’d advise youngsters. I played only when 100 percent fit, not even 75 percent. If I was even 50 percent fit, I’d skip even the Japan Open or All England.”
On India’s dearth of success in women’s singles, Padukone said, “It’s not that they aren’t trying, but it’s not enough. Technically, they are equally good. But physically, they are not strong or fast enough. They should focus on physical parameters – speed, fitness and power.”
Aakarshi Kashyap, who finished runners-up in the Nationals narrowly to Anupama Upadhyay, reckons life on the Tour makes other arduous demands on the body. “It’s a bit faster, yes, but at that level the top players have better agility and endurance. You don’t get much time to recover and restart the next day. Also, you travel a lot on 9-10-hour flights. So there’s jetlag. I do my best to not miss any sessions even if I’m with the team and not playing,” she says.
Her punch clears have got better, but there’s plenty of scope for improvement and Kashyap awaits her one breakthrough result. “It’s not that my smash doesn’t have power. But I’m not always able to execute it in matches,” she says. Ashmita Chaliha and Malvika Bansod have also lacked consistency, and women’s singles domestically is like a revolving door – most can beat each other on a given day. The jump up to the international circuit though is stuck in the absence of strength. “Saina and Sindhu were very strong athletes. That strength is absent in women’s singles,” Padukone said.