There’s little buzz in the Sri Fort stadium on the first day of the India Open Super Series. For the seeded players it’s a chance to have a short light hearted training session. Meanwhile, on the main courts, in front of mostly empty stands, are those players who hope to earn the right to join their more accomplished colleagues in the main rounds of the 250000USD event.
In professional badminton, those competing in the qualifiers are undoubtedly lower on the pecking order. However even in qualifiers, there is a hierarchy. Ajay Kumar is somewhere towards the lower rungs of that ladder. Compared to his opponent on Tuesday — two time national champion Arvind Bhat, venerable at 34 — but still in strong form with a Grand Prix Gold title win last week — he was a long shot. Yet in the day’s major upset, Kumar came out on top 22-20, 23-21.
There’s little that makes the 23-year-old from Hyderabad stand out. Kumar is an attacking player but at a touch over 170cm and his slight frame doesn’t generate a lot of power. He doesn’t have a number of strokes at his disposal. Defensively he is vulnerable. Kumar had been once talked about as a prospect but that was in 2010 when he won a bronze at the Junior Nationals. At that point was ranked among the top 5 indian juniors. Back then he had earned a place at the Gopichand Academy.
But the senior results never came. He couldn’t string two consecutive wins. In November 2012 he suffered an ankle fracture in a motorcycle accident that saw him getting sidelined for nearly nine months. While the rest of his junior compatriots racked up wins, Kumar could only watch. “It was hard for me at the Academy because all the other players were doing well and I couldn’t keep up with them,” Kumar says.
And while on Tuesday, Kumar competed in a faded Gopichand Academy T shirt, he isn’t a part of famed stable any longer. Late last year, his middling three-and-a half-year stint forced the Academy to cut their losses. The Gopichand Academy had supported me for three and a half years. When I left I was without sponsors or a contract,” says Kumar.
This is the sort of returns that would push many to reconsider their choice of vocation. There wasn’t that choice for Kumar but not because of lack of options. “I’ve suffered a lot to play badminton. I cant think of anything else. My life is about badminton,” he says.
After his injury healed, Kumar returned to Goverdhan Reddy, an understudy of SM Arif, — who had coached him at the start of his career. There isn’t any movie like turnaround in form. Kumar lost in the first round of the Tata Open, the prequarterfinals of the nationals and in the first round of the Syed Modi most recently. His World Ranking as on Tuesday is 301.
Ahead of Tuesday’s match, he had never played Bhat in a competitive match. After the match Bhat admits he was surprised by Kumar — who had beaten Deepak Khatri 21-13 21-15 in the first round . “I was already thinking of the first round match. I knew he could play well because we had practiced together at Gopichand’s academy. I thought I would take the lead and be able to relax a little bit but he kept coming back at me. He held on at the final important moments. I had cold and cough but it is not the reason for my loss. I think he played better,” Bhat said.
The win may have been the biggest of Kumar’s career but there’s unlikely to be a fairytale ending anytime soon. The first round match Bhat was thinking about was with World No. 1 Lee Chong Wei. Now Kumar has drawn that card. “Wow!” is his first reaction on learning his opponent. There is little fear just the anticipation in playing another day, this time in the main draw. “Playing the World No. 1 is a great opportunity. I’ll give it my 100 percent,” he says.
Among others, Shreyansh Jaiswal defeated Subhankar Dey 21-19 14-21 21-8, veteran Anup Sridhar, who had got a walkover in the first round, prevailed over Chetan Anand 21-14 21-16 to reach the main draw in another men’s singles match. Jaiswal will take on Brice Leverdez of France in the first round while Anup will take on other qualifier Suppanyu Avihingsanon tomorrow.