He’s come out of the blind side and taken Indian badminton by storm.
Ask people if they’ve heard of Ajay Jayaram and most of them will go ‘Who’. But the 24-year-old, who hails from Chembur in Mumbai, has emerged from the crowd to battle Commonwealth Games bronze medallist P Kashyap for a chance to play in the men’s singles competition of the 2012 London Olympics.
While Kashyap has been a consistent performer for a couple of years now, Ajay was not even on the radar of the selectors for major tournaments just over a year ago. But he was determined to make a mark even if that meant pulling himself out of the Prakash Padukone academy and travelling the world without any financial support or coach to gather valuable ranking points.
According to the latest ranking, Ajay, ranked 25, is just two spots behind Kashyap now, and unless both of them break into the top 16 by May 3, 2012, only the highest-ranked shuttler will qualify for the London Games.
Till the World Championships in London, not many would have taken notice of the 24-year-old’s steady climb in the world rankings. The lanky shuttler packed off world number 15 and 2009 All England finalist Kenichi Tago in the opening round and almost upset the applecart of the defending world champion, Chen Jin, in the quarterfinals to announce his arrival on the big stage at the very venue where the badminton event of the London Olympics will be played.
When Ajay started this journey back in 2008, it raised eyebrows for even his coaches, who couldn't grasp the logic behind spending all the earnings from domestic tournaments and Indian Oil scholarships in travelling and playing abroad.
During that time, the general view was that up and coming players should avail of the “exposure tours” provided by the government and only if the players showed exceptional results, they should go ahead and take their chances. Instead, the Chembur lad played 15-16 international tournaments at his own cost.
Ajay was then hovering beyond the 150 mark in the world ranking and many coaches felt that he lacked the confidence to win big matches and hence, should work on that instead of playing too many tournaments.
However, Ajay had different designs and his parents went all out to support him in his endeavour. He used to describe that expenditure as a long-term investment and to his credit, the investment is beginning to pay off.
Ajay began the year 2010 ranked 77 and was not even in the scheme of things of the national selection panel for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. That meant that Ajay had to once again fend for himself after a brief hiatus in 2009 and the decision to shift to Portugal changed the direction of his career.
Ajay joined Tom John, the then national coach of Portugal national team, and got a contract with French Club Lagardere Paris Racing, that took care of his expenses to stay and travel in Europe.
The move paid off as he won the Czech Open and the Smiling Fish international in Indonesia and made it to the Dutch Grand Prix final by beating the then world number 15 Mark Zwiebler of Germany. By the year end, he had climbed 42 places to finish at 35.
Ajay hasn’t looked back since then and Olympic Gold Quest’s decision to support him has come as a shot in the arm for the world championship pre-quarterfinalist.
Tom John has added a new dimension to his game, aggression, and it is now clear why the shuttler left the Padukone Academy and shifted to Lucknow after the India-born Englishman joined the Uttar Pradesh Badminton Association’s academy as head coach.
Since the world championship, Ajay reached the semifinals of the Vietnam Open Grand Prix and then upset world number 7 Tien Minh Nguyen in the Japan Super Series last week in his first tournament after recovering from an abdomen muscle tear.
Going into the final stretch of the Olympic qualification, Ajay definitely has the momentum going his way, but his quest for Olympic glory would depend on how well he manages to defend the points from the European circuit and remain injury free.