Hope springs eternal in autumn in these parts of the badminton world. It’s when shuttle’s European circuit swings into action and the caravan moves from the sweaty, sweltering bustle of Asia’s cauldrons to picture-postcard towns of Europe’s mainland.
For Ajay Jayaram, witnessing a resurgence, the European swing brings with it an opportunity to make good the promise of a season that has yanked him right back from a certain oblivion given his freefall into a ranking slide and rankling injuries.
Ajay’s hopped into Odense, a scenic city, Denmark’s third largest yet one whose tiled roofs dot a distinctly low skyline and the quiet cobbled streets magnify the sound to a rattle of the strolleys that are rolling in with the badminton calvacade in town.
At the Super Series, after he won the Dutch title last week, there is an upgrade that’s come Ajay’s way – a direct entry into the main draw, albeit with a wicked twist: in Round 1 he runs straight into compatriot Kidambi Srikanth against whom he’s lost in both prior meetings.
Could be said it all started at Korea, where the Mumbai lad, now 28 years of age and No. 26 in rankings, made his maiden Super Series final — only the second Indian to do so after K Srikanth’s two titles. Or the Swiss Open Grand Prix final in February where he lost (once more) to India’s highest ranked shuttler Srikanth, but had shown the dewy spark of spring in stringing together a good week’s matches, albeit against mid-table opponents.
But for someone who was languishing at around No. 65 same time last year, with the next batch of Prannoy and Srikanth galloping past with contemporary P Kashyap still going strong, his climb upto No. 26 has been the headline story of the year — not less dramatic than Saina Nehwal’s jinx-breaking World Championship medal and Kashyap’s victory over reigning No. 1 Chen Long, even if the scale of his achievement is many notches lower.
For what the ‘comeback’ narrative is worth, Jayaram ticks the requirements of the hero: an almighty slump, patient rebuilding away from the limelight and two finals that are buzzing in India, on twitter terraces and TV talkathons where badminton’s making the prime slots and front pages.
Jayaram also sports a mop of curls now held back by a rocker’s headband and posts “happy me” pictures on social networking websites after winning titles — all of which is getting him a nice little fan following.
Speak to him though, and he remains a courteous, soft spoken young man at peace with all the travails of his travelling life. This struggle to return to reckoning took Jayaram across Europe’s outposts — far from the Asian frenzy of Super Series events. This was soon after his last injury — a spirit-breaking shoulder pain that restricts smashing and all overhead stroking and can make a shuttler feel like a wizard without a wand.
This struggle to not be forgotten as a good Indian player, took him to Vladivostok. The city in Russia is historical for the Trans Siberian Railway connecting Far East to Europe, but not exactly a pit-stop that rolls easy on your regular shuttler’s itinerary. To be sure, a lot of tongue twisters from East Asia get stamped at entry on badminton players’ passports — Kuching, Kowlin, Palembang are quaintly charming. But Vladivostok, where Brezhnev and Ford actually attempted peace and pullbacks at the peak of Cold War, is seriously remote in the badminton context of a player with some fast-paced aggressive smash kills on his mind. “I started off with challenger and Grand Prix tournaments after my injury,” Jayaram calmly says, after joining the rest of the Indian team that skipped the under-card Grand Prix event.
Jayaram, who moved to Page 2 of the official rankings this last week — (upto No. 25 you are on the first ranking page) — famously and narrowly missed going to the Olympics in 2012. Kashyap went, from a last-day qualification twist of fate (and ostensibly Chen Jin’s twisted ankle) and did well to reach the quarters.
In fact, Jayaram’s claim to fame was that of an almost-Olympian till he made the Super Series final at Seoul in September. But he knows what it is to fight to earn a place in the main draw. He even sees positives in it, which is why he’s gung-ho to have a go at Denmark right after a week of court-time at the Dutch Open. “In a Challenger event the first couple of rounds aren’t as hard. So you have time to settle in. Whereas in a Super Series, you’re facing the world’s best right from the first round. Playing smaller events before entering big ones helps as you get to play and win more matches and become mentally more ready for the bigger challenges,” he says.
Jayaram has been working on his defence. “And working on my patience,” he says. Patience is hard work for some who like playing the attacking strokes but find themselves up against defences that are so dogged in badminton that they can drain the joy out of you if you are the impetuous sorts armed with kill-shots.
Coach Arvind Bhat, the former international travelling with the team now, sat for Jayaram’s matches in Almere for the Dutch win. “He is just a bit more confident as he progresses to the fag end of the match. Just the mental fitness actually. He seems a bit more motivated to win also. Coming out of tough situations. Playing gutsy when required,” Bhat says.
Bhat describes how against the wild-eyed Estonian Raul Must, Jayaram could patiently negotiate weaknesses — his opponent’s and correct his own. “He watched out for his weakness. He was careful there. And at the same time he exploited the other guy’s weakness as told. Best thing was he was able to execute what was told which is a very hard thing given how quick the game is,” he says.
Yet, the struggle’s not over even if a couple of tournament finals hint at things looking up. Jayaram eyes the upgrade to the main draw, saying, “In the couple of Super Series I played I did have to go through qualifying. It is a challenge because you have to play 2 additional matches as compared to the rest.” He’s still India’s fourth best player in terms of rankings at the moment, a definite underdog going into the match-off against Srikanth. It’ll be the match of the day for Indian badminton fans and also perhaps Jayaram’s biggest test in matching wits with India’s most successful shuttler currently. And Rio dreams seem distant unless he can surge through past the leading trio of Prannoy, Kashyap and Srikanth.
But he’s seen tougher days. In the biting winter of October 2010, Jayaram missed his flight and ended up spending a night at the airport headed for the Czech International. He would reach the evening before the match, but surprisingly end up winning the tournament. The winter never looked more sunnier than when it rained titles.
Kashyap vs Chong Wei
Parupalli Kashyap might be playing Lee Chong Wei first up, but his own measured optimism combined with the Malaysian great’s vulnerability can raise Indian hopes. Chong Wei looks far from unbeatable (by the non-Lin Dans, that is) these days, and could be said to have hit the pits when he lost to Heo Kwang Hee, the Korean junior world champ at the latter’s home Super Series’ qualifying event, failing to even make the main draw.
While Jayaram and Srikanth battle it out, Odense has rolled out a shivering, cold reception to the Olympic and former World Championships silver medallist in the form of a stiff opener against Kashyap.