It was in 2012 that Sameer Verma heralded his arrival on the Indian badminton scene by winning the national under-19 singles title. Over the next three years, the Gopichand Academy trainee suffered so many crippling injuries, especially with herniated discs in his lower back, that he was not sure he if would be able to play again.
“In 2012, I got injured far too many times,” Sameer recalls. “I had a horrible back injury; I started playing, and again I hurt my back in 2013. I worked on my strength, and was fit again. But then, I contracted an ankle injury, followed by appendicitis in 2014, and had to work my way back to fitness all over again.”
Today, the sprightly lad has shaken off all those debilitating injuries, and had made it to the final of a BWF Super Series event - one of just 12 in the annual badminton calendar. En route to the title round, the No 43-ranked Indian got the better of world No 3, Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark, who is currently sitting pretty atop the list of men’s singles qualifiers for the year-ending Destination Dubai Super Series grand finals.
“I have been playing injury-free since October 2014, and I am happy with the way my game has shaped up,” says Sameer. “I won the Tata Open in December last year, and then won the Bahrain International. I reached the pre-quarter finals at this year’s All England, beating the world No 11 on the way.
“Then I became the national champion, beating my elder brother Sourabh (the 2012 national champion) in the final at Chandigarh. Actually, I had wanted to play in Malaysia, but Gopi sir (coach Pullela Gopichand) advised me to play the Nationals. So I did, and it was a very satisfying feeling to win. Such performances have really boosted my confidence.”
The 22-year-old Sameer and his elder brother Sourabh, who will be 24 on 30 December this year, hail from a lower middle class family living in the town of Dhar, near Indore in Madhya Pradesh. It was their father, an employee of the Narmada Valley Development Authority, who inspired them to take up the sport, even as their housewife mother provided quiet emotional support.
Sourabh was taken in as a trainee by national coach Gopichand in early 2010, and his younger brother followed suit shortly thereafter. Both were to win the under-19 national title in their respective final years of being in that age category. Before that, Sameer had captured the silver medal in the 2011 Asian Junior Badminton Championships and the men's singles title at the Commonwealth Youth Games the same year.
Not unexpectedly, Sourabh has been an idol and role model for Sameer who eventually began to overhaul his brother, and currently has three victories over Sourabh – at the Bangladesh Open and Tata Open in 2015, and the 2016 Nationals.
“We share a good bond,” insists Sameer. “Every time we win or lose a match, we discuss what we did wrong or right. We also discuss and analyse different players’ games together.”
It must be mentioned that after his recurrent back injuries, Sameer had plenty of support from his coach Gopichand, who had himself come back from a horrific knee injury in 1996 to win the prestigious All England title in 2001. Equally inspiring was the fact that ‘Gopi sir’ slaved away with his wards from 4.30am, every single weekday, giving his best trainees individual attention in an effort to iron out their flaws.
“Injuries are part and parcel of a player’s life, but they hamper one’s game as it takes a lot of time in rehab, and then to reach the peak of your game as you make a comeback,” says Sameer. “The point is, if Gopi sir could do it, we should also be able to make a go of it!”
It serves little purpose to list the number of titles that Sameer has won in his career. Suffice to say that he began his campaign in January 2015 with a lowly ranking of 262 and has worked his way steadily upwards, hovering in the 35-45 range right through 2016.
Along the way, he has notched up significant victories over players of the calibre of Vietnam’s Nguyen Tien Minh, China’s Wang Zhengming, Japan’s Sho Sasaki and Hong Kong’s Hu Yun. And now, of course, the best triumph of his young career – a straight-games 21-19, 24-22 victory over the redoubtable Jorgensen.
Gopichand himself is mighty impressed with the progress his trainee has made over the past one year. He was also pleased to see the Verma brothers crossing swords in the Nationals final.
“Both the brothers are very respectful,” he says. “They both have an unorthodox game which surprises their opponents. Sameer has the potential to play at the highest level. He is a quick learner and a very sincere student. I have been watching him since his teenage days. He has established himself in the senior circuit over the past year, and I am hoping he will go places in the years to come.”
Sameer claimed the distinction of becoming the first Indian male player in 34 years to enter the final of the Hong Kong Open in 2016. Prakash Padukone, who had won the tournament in 1982, was the previous Indian man to make the final in Hong Kong.
Sameer is also only the third Indian male player to make the final of a Super Series event. Kidambi Srikanth had won the China Open in 2014 and the Indian Open last year, following Padukone's 1982 win in Hong Kong.
Known for his wristy play at the net and solid retrieval skills, the slightly built Sameer plays an attacking game and likes to hustle his rival into errors. Temperamentally, he is very sound, and will fight to the last point. However, he does have a tendency to be erratic in his smashes, and is not as powerful as some of his contemporaries at the Gopichand Academy.
It must be mentioned that the 22-year-old Sameer (born 20 October, 1994) was not part of the main draw at the just-concluded Hong Kong Open, but was promoted only after a clutch of withdrawals by big names.
It is, therefore, all the more creditable that he came through the 32-player main draw, winning four matches – against Japan’s Takuma Ueda (22-20, 21-18) and Kazumasa Sakai (19-21, 21-15, 21-11), Malaysia’s Chong Wei Fang (21-17, 23-21) and of course, Jorgensen (21-19, 24-22) – on the way to the title round against Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus.
“Played my heart out today, but credit to Ka Long who kept his nerve in the big points,” Sameer posted on his Facebook page. “Nevertheless, I am extremely proud of my performance here in Hong Kong. This result motivates me further to train harder and hopefully win big matches, which I couldn't today. But still, chin up; will be looking forward to the next tournament, the Macau Open, which starts on Tuesday.”
Sameer may have been bested in the Hong Kong Open final on Sunday by a player exactly his age, and ranked 25 places above him in the BWF ladder. But with his sprightly performances right through the week, the youngster has shown that he will be a force to reckon with on the international scene for some time to come.