For 19-year-old Riya Mukherjee, her father has forever been a source of inspiration. A talented shuttler in his heyday, Inderjeet Mukherjee made his name with a decent record at the domestic level before a road accident while returning from Puri to Kolkata in 1996 led to him losing mobility in his playing arm and cut short his career.
Big things had been expected from Inderjeet, who had won bronze at the 1983 Asian Badminton Championships in Kolkata apart from a junior national championship. In an era defined by the iconic Prakash Padukone and Syed Modi, Inderjeet was one of the few men's singles players who looked like they could cut it on the international stage. After a good show at several senior All-India ranking events in 1985, Inderjeet had emerged as one of the most consistent shuttlers on the circuit before eight fractures in his right arm as a consequence of the accident derailed his hopes of playing the sport he loved.
"I played at the 1987 South Asian Games where Prakash Padukone was also a part of the team. We managed to bring the gold medal home in the team event while I won bronze in the men’s singles."
However, just when he was peaking, Inderjeet's career was unfortunately curtailed. "It was late. I had dozed off with my right hand hanging outside the window. An oil tanker passed by and hit it," he recalls.
Being born nearly three years after the accident, Riya never watched him play the sport. But she heard enough about her father's wrist wizardry and forehand trickery from coaches and former players while growing up to want to become a badminton player just like him. "While growing up, I would hear about him from others wherever I went to play. I wish I could watch him play but unfortunately, there are no videos of him playing," she says.
On Sunday, the unseeded shuttler competed in her maiden International Series final at the Tata Open, being played at Mumbai's Cricket Club of India. She started the tournament as a qualifier, but made it to the final with a series of impressive displays. However, Ruthvika Shivani Gadde emerged victorious in the summit clash with a 21-12, 23-21 scoreline. Regardless of the result, the Indian badminton fraternity, including Prakash Padukone who was at attendance at the CCI on Sunday, witnessed the spark in Riya throughout the tournament.
Surprisingly, there was a time where Inderjeet was against the idea of Riya taking up the sport professionally. “That period was difficult. After what happened to me, I was terrified. I could see the spark in her. But as a father, I didn’t want her to go through all of that,” says Inderjeet.
However, a few years later when Inderjeet was transferred to Hyderabad from Lucknow, it was his wife who took Riya to a local club before she moved to the Babu Banarasi Badminton Academy. That switch was the beginning of her dream. “Though my wife does not come from a sporting background, she always felt Riya had the potential and, believe me, she has impressed all of us,” Inderjeet says.
SM Arif, who coached Inderjeet back in his playing days and now coaches Riya, was also affected by the accident in 1986. “It was quite a loss for us because he had just started peaking when the accident happened,” says the Dronacharya Awardee and former India coach.
Interestingly, Riya has always set her sights on getting good results, be it in the examination hall or on the badminton court. “I have to manage that. I have always been a studious kid. I can’t rely on just one thing at such a young age since it’ll define my career,” says Riya. But Inderjeet believes she is putting all her efforts in maintaining a balance between academics and badminton. "She is good at studies as well. So, that's one problem for us," he laughs before adding: "It is difficult for us but we are trying to strike a balance between both."
Inderjeet can hardly move his right hand, but played with his left just so he could help Riya get her basics right when she was starting out. Where else could she find a better coach than her father?
To become a top shuttler, one needs to contest in international tournaments regularly to make the necessary progress. Inderjeet believes that despite the financial difficulties, his daughter should be kept away from the pressure. "Now that she is improving, she needs more exposure. A lot of International Series tournaments are on the horizon but sometimes it gets costly for us to send her abroad. You can skip some events but not all if you want to compete at the top," he admits.
For the past seven months, she’s been training in Hyderabad, where she’s focusing on her court-craft and physical strength. Arif, who has also trained the likes of the current national coach Pullela Gopichand, Jwala Gutta to name a few, feels that she requires speed and variation to reach the top. "She is a good stroke player but I want her to be quick on her feet because on the international stage, the opponent will go for the kill. She needs to bring variation in her game," explains Arif.
Despite her loss in the final, her steely defence left Gadde frustrated. Riya credits her defence to the time training with boys in Lucknow. “Usually, the boys have just one style — to keep smashing down the court. So, I learned to counter their shots,” she says. “They’d hit as hard as they could, but I’d get the shuttle back into play. So my defence became quite solid,” she says.
Against Gadde, Riya squandered four game points at 20-17 and lost the second game 21-23 as she was denied by the net on three consecutive occasions right at the end. “She has a habit of playing late at the net but we are working on getting her tap shots right. If she has to become a world-class player, she has to go all out,” says Arif before adding: "She needs to catch up in a couple of areas like defence near the forehand side. Only defending is not important, it's about how you change the direction of the shuttle and put pressure on the sides."
In the last four years though, Riya has shown why she could make it to the top in the future. She bagged the sub-junior national crown in 2012 and won bronze twice in the 2015 and 2016 editions. Two years later, she tasted her first international success by claiming silver in the mixed doubles event with Satwiksairaj Rankireddy at the U-17 Asian Championships.
Riya’s achievements also include becoming an under-15 national champion in 2012 and her qualifying for two major international events in India — 2016 Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold and the India Open. Despite losing in the final, she thinks there is a lot in store for her in the upcoming tournaments as she now travels to Sikkim for yet another International Series event.
"Her success means everything to us. There is nothing more important than that. Our life depends on that," Inderjeet concludes.
Updated Date: Dec 04, 2017 17:12 PM