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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

BWF World Championships: On the Mark was Caljouw – three months after heart surgery, while beating Sai Praneeth

Falling back in the opening set against Sai Praneeth, 21-17. Picking the pace in the second, Caljouw - a tall man with tentacle-like arms that retrieve not just for lateral / horizontal reach but also connect with the shuttle at a higher altitude - would start harrying Sai.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: December 13, 2021 8:56:54 am
Sai Praneeth, badminton star Sai Praneeth, Sai Praneeth in pandemic, Sai Praneeth returns to training, Sai Praneeth Shivani naik reportThe mid-set cost Sai Praneeth some gasping breaths. (Source: Reuters)

In between packing off B Sai Praneeth from the Olympics in August and from the World Championships in December, Mark Caljouw (pr: Cal-eow) steadied his fast-beating heart. Literally.

Writing for his club in Europe BC Vrij Uit, Caljouw had explained his specific condition that got him wheeled into surgery in September. “This sounds pretty drastic, but for the ones who don’t know: Sometimes my heart can make crazy high heartbeats if I am at training or playing a match, which definitely influences my game and also scares me a little bit sometimes. Hopefully after this surgery I can avoid these peaks in my heartbeat,” he wrote crossing his fingers.

It was expected that after the surgery he would have to recover a couple of weeks. “But I will be back soon,” he wrote.

Back he was on Sunday at the Huelva World Championships. Falling back in the opening set against Sai Praneeth, 21-17. Picking the pace in the second, Caljouw – a tall man with tentacle-like arms that retrieve not just for lateral / horizontal reach but also connect with the shuttle at a higher altitude – would start harrying Sai.

The Indian was visibly struggling with his fitness – health even – as the match progressed. Caljouw hurrying through the rallies would max out his pace and smartly not allow Sai a breather, even getting in position double quick while receiving serve.

For someone that’s 187 cms, Caljouw can affect a really low centre of gravity with his lunging and squatting technique when defending on the forecourt. In fact Caljouw retrieved almost 95 percent shuttles bending at the net, and wasn’t rattled by Sai’s numerous variations in dribbles.

His loping strides and extendable arms picked everything in the front corners and bang-centre. The Indian simply couldn’t pierce Caljouw’s spidey-Superman webbed defense in the front. When he lifted, Caljouw revelled in the angled cross-court smash kill.

The mid-set cost Sai Praneeth some gasping breaths. Clearly, his fitness was depleting fast, and he was keen on wrapping it up in two. But Caljouw was indefatigable.

For long considered a peripheral journeyman from the Netherlands, Caljouw has been particularly troublesome for Indians. At around 77 kg, he is heavy footed, but never leaden. A stride and a half this way or that, gets him to the shuttle to any part of the court, and he’s exceptionally agile for his frame while not exactly relying on a one-trick game of bang-bang smash-smash. The tall retriever is very deft at traditional defense, and his anticipation is on a constant buzz, the adrenaline not messing particularly with his accuracy.

Sai Praneeth tried everything. Sending him back on both flanks. Cutting the pace to mid-court with drops and half smashes. The dribbles. But the 21-7 in the second set was an indicator of Caljouw’s determination. He would draw out frustrated errors, with Sai smashing on the net. He would retrieve manically, and barely sail shuttles wide. His control on the shuttle – can be quite a handful. That the ‘heart surgery’ hasn’t mellowed his intensity is a testament to how much he loves the sport.

A self-confessed badminton nut since childhood, Mark, now 26, followed his brothers into the sport. His life has revolved around the bird, and he admitted in an interview to his club website that his social circle is very small and all his life experiences hover around the one sport he loves. He became the first from his country in 25 years to qualify for the Olympics.

In the decider, Sai reckoned he had the match in the bag at 14-8. Still he was panting far too much to not give ideas to an opponent that he could be over-ridden. Caljouw simply threw pace at Sai – in the rallies and between them. All the Indian’s attempts to catch a breath, were foiled by Caljouw simply standing there ready to receive serve. Even his mid-set change of ends had a rush to it – him picking his kitbag and clutching the racquet between his teeth while moving. His mistakes had come owing to the same hurrying, but he sensed an opening watching Sai wilting painfully between points. He brought out the tricks, but the arms and legs just weren’t catching up with Sai’s brain.

Caljouw would chip away at the lead, levelling at 17-all, and then riding the momentum to go ahead. Three quick points broke Sai’s back in a way a 40-shot rally where he gamely defended, didn’t. Sai was finished by the time Caljouw wrapped it 21-18, holding onto the advertisement boards, either cramping or ill. The Dutchman pumped his fist and marched forward, the beating heart not short of gumption.

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