Ajay Jayaram knows a thing or two (to be precise — 2012 and 2016) about Olympic qualification. He’s missed out narrowly on heading to the Games twice — edged out by a sliver of a margin in 2012 in fact. The 32-year-old sensed the disquiet from across the net where Indian badminton’s most scrutinised career was jabbing at his shots and stabbing uncertainly at his kills as he totters towards booking a berth for his second straight Olympics. There was a Round 2 to be won at the Super 300 Barcelona Masters and Ajay preyed on Kidambi Srikanth’s feeble attempt to clear the hurdle and emerged a 21-6, 21-17 winner.
“Srikanth looked tentative and I pounced on his nervousness in the beginning. The second game got closer and tricky in a few places but I maintained the pressure. He didn’t seem like in the game, so I sensed that nervousness and gave him no chance,” Ajay said. Srikanth was attempting to take charge as he closed down a 12-18 gap in the second to within two points. But he was a goner in 28 minutes, beaten by the second Indian he came up against in as many days, after downing Subhankar Dey on Day 1.
Indian men’s singles is attempting to qualify two entries for the first time ever, and the country’s most fluid shuttler when on song, is hitting such jarring notes in the qualification sing-along that a cacophony of criticism rains down on Srikanth expectedly every time he takes to the court and botches yet another outing. Close to 20 men’s singles shuttlers are camped between Barcelona and Austria this moment collecting points, and this multi-pronged Indian push presents a ferrous irony — there’s more Indians in Top 50 than ever and it is the closest of qualification runs.
Ajay played his part in presenting a stern test to Srikanth on Thursday in what is a proper smelting process going on out there; he will need to face the heat to test his mettle in this one. Nothing’s easy about the Olympics. Ajay though, ranked No 68 in the world and far from the blaze of this perform-or-perish foundry, is chasing his own steady goals.
Training with 2008 Olympian Anup Sridhar in Bangalore for just under a year now, Ajay wants to return to the Top 20. He was amongst the first Indian males to make a mark on the pro circuit — reaching the Korea finals in Super Series, but has battled the familiar injury setbacks over the years.
“I’ve known Anup as a player and before I was with Tom John. We had a healthy discussion, and I knew I needed a coach and someone to take charge as coach after a couple of years home in Mumbai,” he says of training under Anup.
Ajay had a decent PBL and had rediscovered his groove — complete with the attacking end-game aggression, even as he negotiated the fitness concerns. “I realised the aggression hasn’t dropped from the game. And I’ve grown a little more patient in long rallies,” he says. A turnaround of sorts in confidence came about at Lucknow when he beat Sameer Verma. “It was a shot in the arm and I was happy with just the way I played – the tenacity and intensity. How well I play is gauged a lot on how well I’m moving. Quality of strokes doesn’t stop, but fitness varies,” he explains of the last few months. He remained in contention start of 2018, but lost most of 2019 to injury. “Towards end of the year I found my rhythm. Now I wanna stay injury-free.”
Ajay was chuffed about the win but perhaps best understands the enormity of the pressure Srikanth is facing. “Over the years Srikanth has been the most exciting Indian player with a wonderful variety in attack everyone loves to watch. But like anyone else, he’s going through ups and downs which is part of any athlete’s career. He became World No 1 and expectations skyrocketed. “With the Olympics qualification looming, there’s additional stress.” It leads to a typically tense situation if qualification isn’t pocketed early. “You end up playing more tournaments than you want to. He’s had a few bad results but knowing Srikanth he’ll be back soon,” Ajay says. How does one deal with this phase? “You gotta enjoy the pressure.”
Making finals has its own tempo. “You can manage that one off good win, but winning matches one after another in a week is not easy,” he says of something likes of Srikanth, Sindhu and Saina managed on the world tour. “Mental focus has to be high all the time and intensity of practice can never match a real game. Recovery needs to be perfect,” he stresses.
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