Almost exactly half a century ago, a couple of sprightly young girls, just into their teens, wowed badminton lovers at suburban Mumbai’s Khar Gymkhana by displaying style and maturity while playing doubles against far older and stronger players.
Ami Ghia and Sujata Jain were to go on to represent the country in international competition, with the former going on to win a total of 22 national titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, reaching a career-high mark of World No 7, and laying claim to be known as one of the icons of Indian badminton.
It is with a sense of déjà vu that one looks upon the recent exploits of 16-year-old Simran Singhi and 17-year-old Ritika Thaker, who became the youngest ever podium finishers at the Ukrainian Open in Kharkiv, bagging a bronze medal in the women’s doubles event, shortly after winning the senior Maharashtra state championship, also being the youngest ever to achieve the feat.
The maturity with which they play, ferreting out unexpected angles and corners on the court, and turning the opponents’ strength upon themselves, is so reminiscent of Ghia and Jain in the early 1970s that one gets goosebumps. And to think that they don’t even practise together, since the Mumbai-based Singhi is separated from the Nagpur-based Thaker by half the distance between Mumbai and Kolkata!
People continue to find it astounding that the two teenagers won the Maharashtra State women’s doubles title on their debut in the competition at Latur this year. They demolished the challenge of top-seeded Manasi Gadgil and Mrunmayee Saoji in the semi-final; and then lowered the colours of the vastly experienced Neha Pandit and Shruti Mundada, who incidentally contested the women’s singles final between them.
Simran and Ritika have the proud record of being unbeaten at the junior level in the past four years. They have been representing the state in the zonal Under-19 championship for the past three years, and have never lost a match, gaining the numero uno position in girls’ doubles at the national level. So well have they gelled together that Maharashtra has utilised their services in the inter-zonal national team event.
The two pooled their talents to bag the All-India Junior title in Tiruppur, earlier this year — a tournament that was treated as a selection trial for the Asian Junior Championships in Jakarta. They have represented the country at the BAC Juniors for the past two years.
Among the seniors at the international level, they already have two titles in their satchel — the Ivory Coast Open in 2017 and the Mauritius Open in 2018. Their bronze medal in the Kharkiv International Challenge came after they eliminated the third-seeded Belarussian pair of Anastasiya Cherniavskaya and Aleksia Zaitsava, who were the 2017 Egyptian Open champions, and had beaten the Indian duo of Prajakta Sawant and Sanyogita Ghorpade en route to the title.
That victory, at the pre-quarter-final stage by a 21-17, 21-12 scoreline, came after the Indian teens suffered from nerves and trailed 1-9 in the opening game. They went on to score a battling 21-14, 15-21, 21-17 triumph over Ukrainians Anna Mikhalkova and Yevgeniya Paksyutova at the quarter-final stage, before going down to Estonians Kristin Kuuba and Kati-Kreet Marran in the penultimate reckoning without much of a fight, at 21-12, 21-14.
“Honestly, I feel that they don’t know how to play doubles the way it should be played; there are a lot of areas that need improvement,” says Manoj Ramchandran, father of nationally ranked doubles player Shlok. “Proper doubles training and practising together can improve their game by at least 15-20 per cent. That would make them competitive in World Tour events.”
Manoj, who is actually Singhi’s maternal uncle and has been mentoring her for the past seven years, is excited about the prospect of seeing his ward make her all-India mixed doubles debut at the forthcoming VV Natu All India tournament in Pune, where she has been paired with her cousin and international, Shlok.
While Simran and Ritika were giving supporters of Indian badminton reason to believe that a decent women’s doubles pair has been found to take over from the likes of Ashwini Ponnappa and the since-retired Jwala Gutta, hardcore lovers of the shuttle sport were simply thrilled to find that one of the world’s greatest doubles players of the last two decades has decided to come out of retirement for another tilt at glory.
South Korea’s Lee Yong Dae, winner of the mixed doubles gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and multiple-time silver medallist at the World Championships, had sensationally announced his retirement at the absurdly young age of 27, at the conclusion of the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, he emerged from a two-year retirement, a fortnight before his 30th birthday, to throw his hat into the ring of the Barcelona Spain Masters tournament 2018.
Badminton aficionados who had followed the Korean doubles specialist’s career since his junior days, when he won a rarest-of-rare triple crown of boys’ doubles, mixed doubles and mixed team titles at the World Junior Championships in his home country in 2006, were not in the least bit surprised when Lee’s latest foray into men’s doubles at the international level in the company of Kim Gi Jung (and not his old favourite, Yoo Yeon Seong) ended in a facile straight-games win in the final, without the loss of a single game en route.
The Koreans’ 21-13, 21-17 victims in the Spain Masters final were the Thai pair of Bodin Issara and Maneepong Jongjit, who have their own unique story behind them. Almost exactly five years ago, in August 2013, the two had the most unseemly altercation on court, right in the midst of a men’s doubles match at the Canada Open. Issara chased Jongjit across three courts, tackled him to the ground and punched him several times before the two could be separated.
For that misdemeanor, Issara was banned for two years by the Badminton World Federation. He was much more chastened and docile after he returned to the circuit, and Indian badminton fans had the pleasure of seeing the talented left-hander playing in the Premier Badminton League.
It is good to realise that the two, who had teamed up in the 2012 London Olympics, have decided, as true sportsmen, to forgive each other for whatever it was that had sparked that unseemly row, and agreed to pool their resources once again on the international circuit. Although they came up short against the gifted Lee Yong Dae in Barcelona, there can be no doubt that they will prove to be a thorn in the sides of many of the world’s top doubles combinations in the days to come.
Updated Date: Sep 03, 2018 15:21:59 IST