Throughout the tournament, PVV Lakshmi would sit in the spectators stand and before her daughter Pullela Gayatri Gopichand’s matches, would start the camera on her phone to record the matches. While it was the first time that Gayatri was playing in the U-19 category, the former national champion was also concentrating on getting her daughter’s matches recorded.
As 14-year-old Gayatri made her way to her first U-19 title with a 23-21, 21-18 over top seed Purva Barve of Maharashtra in the 26th Smt. Krishna Khaitan Memorial All India Junior Ranking and Prize Money Badminton Tournament at Panjab University, Lakshmi passed on her phone to one of her friends to make the recording.
“I started recording from this tournament. Before that, I never used to record her matches. She told me that since other parents are doing it, so I also need to do it,” the mother laughed.
“She had won three tournaments in U-17 and we thought we might give it a try in U-19. I won this tournament at age of 16 during the first edition and she has done it at 14. Back then I was happy as a player. Now I am more happy as my daughter has won. She knew I had won it and she told me she will also win,” said an emotional PVV Lakshmi.
With all of her matches stretched to three games except the opener, the final match also looked like a three-game affair. After leading the first game 11-1, Gayatri’s failure to read centre shots by Barve saw the Maharashtra player getting even on 18-18. A better net play saw Gayatri winning the opening game before she displayed a mix of attacking and backhand shots to wrest the initiative in the second.
Barve, who is currently ranked fourth in U-19 rankings, struggled to read Gayatri’s backhand shots and the win meant that it was the first national ranking title at U-19 level for the Hyderabad player. “Gayatri has been beating all the good players at the U-17 level. Her forehand cross drop and backhand flip shot made things difficult for me and playing in U-19 made her play with no pressure,” shared 18-year-old Barve after the loss.
While the last six months have seen the Hyderabad girl winning three U-17 national ranking tournaments at Trivandrum, Bengaluru and Chennai where she defeated the U-17 top seed Aakarshi Kashyap of Chattisgarh in the finals, it has also seen Gayatri spending some extra hours in training to prepare for the U-19 category. Gayatri’s road to the final saw her spending 238 minutes on the court as compared to 131 minutes by Barve.
Two of her five wins in the World Junior Badminton Championships last month before her loss against Chinese Cai Yanyan—who recently won the Macau title— in the pre-quarters also came in three games and coach Anil Kumar believes the youngster can make a move in the senior category by the end of next year. “Last three months, she has been practicing for rallies for three hours daily and focus has been on corner to corner movement and we have been increasing the training little by little. Also the focus has been more on agility training and we know that we will extend weight training after two years,” he said.
“Her strength has been tosses and drop shots and she displayed that in today’s final. She is expected to compete in the senior women’s category internationally next year. She has been training along with others under Indonesian coach Mulyo Handyo whenever he gets free time from national duty and he has told her to try variations in behind-the-shuttle shots,” said Anil Kumar.
The Saina comparison
While Saina Nehwal became the U-19 national champion at the age of 16 in 2006, the same year also saw Nehwal becoming the youngest player to win a 4-star International tournament when she won the Philippines Open. Former junior national chief coach Sanjiv Sachdeva, who mentored Saina during her junior days, has also seen Gayatri’s game closely. While last month saw a controversy on Gayatri’s inclusion in the Indian team for the World Junior Championships, Sachdeva believes she has answered her critics.
“She showed that she does not fear U-19 players and this win will also silence her critics. The way she tosses the shuttle and plays cross shots is something which will help her further in her career. She has good footwork and she can also play the straight cross shots,” he adds. As for Gayatri, she only had this to say, “For me, playing in U-19 is physically the same but it is different mentally.”