Back in 2018-19, Ashmita Chaliha was being touted as the one to succeed Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. Triumphs at the Tata Open, Dubai International and South Asian Games saw her catapult from a lowly world No.282 in November 2018 to a career best No.77 in March 2020. “My goal is to enter the top 50,” she had said back then.
But then came Covid-19.
The pandemic completely stalled Chaliha’s career when international tournaments were halted in March 2020. Though the Badminton World Federation (BWF) organised events later in the year and in 2021, most of them were higher tier competitions where only top-ranked players could qualify automatically.
The result—Chaliha could not play even a single international tournament in 2020. Just when she thought she would return to the circuit in 2021, the Assamese shuttler suffered another setback when she tested positive two days before leaving for the Ukraine International in September.
She ended up playing only one event—Bahrain International in November—after recovering. “She missed out on two crucial years at an age where she could have made a big mark at the world stage,” said national selector U Vimal Kumar.
Yet there she was on Tuesday, the 22-year-old using all her guise and expertise to cause the upset of the day. The 84th ranked player beat world No.28 Evgeniya Kosetskaya 24-22, 21-16 in half-an-hour on the opening day of the $400,000 India Open at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex.
“I haven’t played a lot in the last two years so I was nervous and that affected me midway in the opening game. But once I won the first game, I was more confident and relaxed in the second,” said Chaliha, who idolises Saina Nehwal. “It is a big event and I was looking forward to playing the Russian. I played safe and it helped to pull off the match. I played her before and had lost in straight games so it was one of my biggest wins.”
Chaliha had lost to the Russian fifth seed back in 2019, in their only other encounter.
Regular curfews and lockdowns—both local and global—brought with it closure of stadiums and facilities, thereby halting training and competitions. Chaliha was frustrated after “wasting” the last two “low” years.
“It was tough because I was practicing but there were no tournaments,” she said. “It was torturous because I wanted to compete. It was really sad that tournaments were getting cancelled. A lot of times practice became irregular, I had to cancel international tickets which were non-refundable. But now I’m looking forward for a better competitive year.”
It was during the Senior Nationals in February 2019 that Chaliha first announced her arrival on the big stage. Despite being tamed 21-10 by Sindhu in the first game, the southpaw fought back on her home turf in Guwahati to lead 19-16 in the second before the Rio Olympics silver medallist used her experience to eventually clinch the game and contest 22-20.
Though she lost, Chaliha had shown what she was capable of, earning praise from not just Sindhu and Vimal but also Danish legend Morten Frost, who was there witnessing the match.
“She was always a very promising girl. Of course the pandemic was the main reason why she could not play but there has been no special performance from her in the domestic circuit either,” said Vimal, also the chief coach of Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru where Chaliha used to train earlier. “I am little disappointed with her progress. She has quite a good game, skill wise she had everything. But the selection trials, ranking tournaments were opportunities lost.”
Chaliha currently trains at the Assam Badminton Academy in Guwahati under Indonesian coach Edwin Iriawan, who was part of the national set up from 2010-2014.
“Edwin is a good coach. She needs to train a little bit harder, put in a lot more effort and focus now that she has got this good win,” added Vimal, formerly chief national coach.
Chaliha has a good chance of making the quarter-finals of the Super 500 tournament if she wins the second round against France’s world No.71 Yaelle Hoyaux—who beat Riya Mookerjee 21-14, 21-13—in what will be their first contest.
Men’s singles: 1-Kidambi Srikanth beat Siril Verma 21-17, 21-10; 5-Loh Kean Yew (SGP) beat Xiaodong Sheng (CAN) 16-21, 21-4, 21-13, 6-Sameer Verma beat Sourabh Verma 21-7, 21-7
Women’s singles: 1-PV Sindhu beat Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli 21-5, 21-16; Ashmita Chaliha beat 5-Evgeniya Kosetskaya (RUS) 24-22, 21-16
Men’s doubles: 1-Hendra Setiawan/Mohammad Ahsan (INA) beat Prem Singh Chouhan/Rajesh Verma 21-18, 21-10
Courtesy – www.hindustantimes.com