Hong Kong is where Sameer Verma made the Super Series finals in the autumn of 2016, kickstarting a fine run for men’s singles in India the following year. 2017 ended up as a glorious season with the rest of the ace-pack of Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Sai Praneeth following up with memorable wins. But it was Sameer Verma who had set up the ascent to that run, with Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo chipping in with his insights. But both 2017 and 2018 have been the calm before the storm that will be Olympic qualification in the run-up to 2020. Once again, in reaching the semifinals of the World Tour Finals meet, Sameer Verma has taken the lead, but he will need to pounce on this opportunity he’s earned himself, starting with the Saturday clash against Chinese Shi Yuqi.
Sameer has beaten Yuqi the last time they met at Denmark – a tournament that literally saw sluggish, tired Asian Games-weary feet trudge through Odense. Making the most of his fresh limbs and mind, Sameer Verma (now World No 14), had evicted Yuqi and the freshly crowned Asiad champ Jonatan Christie. However, wrapping up what has been a breakthrough year where he’s benefitted from flying under the radar of scalding top tier competition, Sameer will need to make the World Tour Finals count, if he wants to head into 2019 as a serious contender.
At the Tour Finals, he’s beaten first a very moody Tommy Sugiarto and then wiped out Thai No 17 Kantaphon Wangcharoen 21-9, 21-18. The Sugiarto match was a dull, soporific affair – throwback to finals of the 90s National championships, shorn of any power or pace. And after losing to Kento Momota in his opener, Sameer’s first real test fetches up in the form of the Chinese.
To put matters into perspective, despite boasting the largest prize money $15,00,000 – the year-ender struggles to pitch itself as a climax of an exciting year on the circuit, with not all the top names qualifying. BWF’s attempts to get them to qualify through the mandatory 12 tournaments gets jeopardized with the insane number of injuries that the tired warhorses carry, and 2018 has been a particularly listless year for Chen Long, Viktor Axelsen and India’s own Kidambi Srikanth. Son Wan Ho remains ho-hum and save Chou Chen Tien and Kento Momota, the rest are either felled by the taxing year of the Asiad or are nursing niggles ahead of the start of the Olympic qualification period.
The A-Games are distinctly missing at Guangzhou, which offers Sameer a good opportunity to go for the kill.
Badminton tends to go through these cycles – and the two years immediately after the Olympics can be particularly lucrative for the poachers – those like Sameer Verma who show enough grit to hang in there and jump at these vacuums left by the top players slumbering or hibernating tactically. Credit is due to Sameer Verma not just because he’s won three titles this year – Swiss, Hyderabad and Syed Modi, but because like at his Hong Kong Open run to the finals, he’s made the most of this chance where he wasn’t shouldering responsibilities at the CWG or Asiad.
That he finds himself ahead of HS Prannoy and Sai Praneeth in rankings is a testimony to that highly strategic tournament planning, where he’s emerged as the boss of the second rung – this needed consistency and humility to fight out and get the job done even if it was the second tier of contests. He did beat Kento Momota at the Swiss Open, as well as Jan O Jorgensen and three second rung Chinese on way to the Syed Modi title. Begrudged his spot at the World Championships in 2017 after Prannoy struck form, and Sameer clumsily faltered in his own match at Glasgow, Sameer though has proven that he is grittier while eking out his wins and finding more poise in 2018 – earning those mid-table returns.
It could well have been Prannoy and Sai Praneeth playing in Guangzhou, but it was Sameer Verma who showed resilience.
2019 though, will be a step up
“It’s been a fantastic result for Sameer the way he’s played is really good and in this year he’s just gone a little consistent. Although his wins against the real top ones are not there, I think at just the next level, he’s played really well and consistent,” coach Gopichand said.
On Friday, the instructions were simple. “My coach told me Don’t play opponents game, focus on yours’,” he would tell BWF later, adding that he had shrugged off the scramble to qualify for Guangzhou by finally not thinking about it at all.
What Clicks for Sameer
The plan again will be to stay patient and keep shuttle in play – and change strategy at a flick of the finger from the coach. “What makes him tick is his ability to stay on in long, long rallies,” former international player Aravind Bhat says. It’s a quality quite distinct from the natural games of the other three top men’s singles shuttlers from India. But Bhat points to another innate underrated quality.
“Sameer can get his opponent to put a foot wrong. He intuitively senses the weakest spots of opponents and can continuously attack those vulnerabilities,” Bhat says. Added to that, Verma instinctively knows which shot to play when, and owing to his limitations of height (and limited power), relies a lot on reading games quickly.
Indonesian Antony Ginting is also short-statured, but makes up for it through his jumping, pacy game. Sameer Verma can cobble up some unique skills – his whippy handspeed in defense, deception at the net, and again that ability to last out long rallies. “Sameer is brainy, and has a clever defense. He always defends cross, it’s a useful kill,” he adds. His go-to is the overhead crosscourt, but the MP boy has the wherewithal to negotiate conditions.
Though the game will always stay physically more demanding for him than others, Sameer Verma should back himself against Shi Yuqi and in the coming year. “He used to be mentally brittle earlier when under pressure. But he’s improved,” Bhat says. A World Tour final will do him a world of good to sign off a season where he’s put in the hard yards and earned just rewards.
Why its Verma, not Srikanth, who is in year-end headlines …
Kidambi Srikanth is India’s highest ranked player at World No 8, while Sameer Verma stands at No 14. However, Sameer, not Srikanth finds himself at the year-ending World Tour Finals in Guangzhou after the former competed at 20 (15 on the annual circuit) tournaments, as against Srikanth’s 15 (just 10 tour circuit events). In a year that was always going to be heavily hinging on the Commonwealth and Asian Games – that are important for medals tallies, Sameer was relatively free of that burden of expectations. He accumulated points in a couple of Super 300 events (yielding 7000 points for title), while Srikanth’s twin semifinals at Denmark and Malaysia (7700 each) and four quarters at China (twice), France and Japan (approx. 6000 points) weren’t enough to hoard enough qualification points for the year-ender. It helped Sameer that he wasn’t as over-worked in the non-tour multinational events, as he astutely made the most of the competition that was a notch under the top tier. The Asiad takes a toll on top players across the continent, and Sameer’s wins over Shi Yuqi and Jonatan Christie right after Jakarta Games showed how the Indian pounced on these opportunities.