The best of them get nervous as games approach the 21-point mark. Sameer Verma, 22, was known to botch finishings in his early years – he had lost games at 19-21 junctures eight times this year, five of those with opponents closing out matches on that score.
Senior player Aravind Bhat recalls how the youngster would freeze in those situations mighty often playing for the Bangalore franchise, doing no justice to his talent which otherwise sparked intermittently in the course of the match. At 17-all in the opener against Jan O Jorgensen, Verma was on the brink of yet another implosion.
The score ended up reading 21-19 alright in the opening game of the semifinals of the Hong Kong Open. Except, Verma had drawn out anxious errors from the racquet of his opponent this time and nicked a set out of jumpy Jan O. Winning 21-19, 24-22, Verma had made the Word No 3 nervous, while making his first ever Super Series final – a stunning result given he was promoted to the main draw only after a clutch of withdrawals.
The Hong Kong Coliseum, the very occasion of a Super Series last 4 and the heaving expectations of making the final were a far distance out from where Verma had started his badminton: Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh flanked by Chambal and Narmada – a two-platform station where the Rajdhani whistles past from a distance till it halts at Ratlam – a city known for Raja Bhoj and the ruins of Mandu palace, had been stuck with fables of ancient splendour.
Till a decade ago when two brothers, Sourabh and Sameer Verma, followed their father Sudhir to a shuttle court, and within months got serious about the sport.
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Sameer would win every junior national starting from u-10, and pick medals at Asian Juniors at the start of the decade, and the Senior Nationals earlier this season. He had moved to the Gopichand Academy in 2010 following elder Sourabh, but spent a good two seasons nursing back and ankle injuries, with a recurrence thrown in to test his resilience even further. But there had been four titles at the fag end of 2015 – two in Bahrain, plus Bangladesh and Bombay and wins over some decent names – Sho Sasaki, Hu Yun and Chinese Wang Zhengming.
Heading into Hong Kong though, there was no indication of what was to unfold.
Lucky to sneak into the main draw, Verma won some close sets this week, though China Open winner Jan O had seemed too steep a climb even for someone who’d shrugged off his habit of losing the close finishers.
Jorgensen would’ve been drained no doubt after his emotional win at China last week, but it needed Sameer to bring his A game to the court to bring India its first men’s singles finalist at Hong Kong since Prakash Padukone 34 years ago.
Dhar to Hyderabad is in itself a leaping mental journey for a shuttler – his wiki entry still had a mistaken mug shot of RMV Guru Saidutt till Saturday. “It’s seen often in players from smaller cities – they have unbelievable guts to work hard, but the belief’s lacking,” observes Aparna Popat, who’d interacted with Verma on a sponsorship proposal few years ago. “He is extremely hard working, but was unsure. That faith of ‘I belong here’ takes time, but if he plays his game like he did today…” she trails off, pointing to an upswinging potential graph.
Not the most brilliantly built, Verma has a naturally tricky game. It’s his racquet speed and leg rate – the high pace at which his limbs move – that transform a modestly built player into a whirring force.
In the semis against the champion Dane, there were the overhead crosscourts that unsettled Jan O and the sudden, quick, reflex returns that pushed the pace of the rallies midway. A sudden burst that seemed to annoy Jan O and ultimately strangle his intent. There were unorthodox parallel shots and unbelievable smashes.
And then there was the finish to wipe out memories of all prior bad finishes that Sameer has ever endured. Net taps that set up the match point, and the finishing kill – a net exchange of such alacrity before the shuttle whizzed past Jan O like cricket’s perfume ball to end his tired battle.
“He’s a long way from becoming a great player,” Bhat says, “But the boy has some sublime trickery – he’s a sharp mover and gets great angles with deception,” he added.
Clean strokes really, his anticipation was good on the day as he was on the spot to retrieve Jan O’s smashes.
But it was the flat down the line backhand smashes – a smart but difficult stroke – that stood out that completely put the doubts in Jan O’s mind from the very start when Verma went 7-1 up, and when the 43-ranked Indian overturned the 51 deficit in the second game. That backhand across the body stroke had a bit of Taufik Hidayat to it – though the Lin Dan fan was landing them half-court only and could do with more variety when he meets home boy NG Ka Long Angus on Sunday.
“I didn’t think too much before the match. I tried to make him run around the court. I didn’t expect to do so well,” he said disarmingly, and the underdog mind-set helped him a fair bit against Jan O on whom he mounted the stress.
“I was under pressure too at the end of the second game and I was prepared for a third,” Verma said. Just as well, now that he has a final to play.