Sameer Verma’s protest was dismissed by the chair umpire without much hesitation. Suddenly, the 24-year-old shuttler felt his luck turning against him. Two rallies earlier, he held a match point against World No.2 Shi Yuqi, with the score at 20-19 after winning the first set of their World Tour Finals semi-final. Verma was one point away from securing a spot for himself in the biggest match of his career. But he faltered, lifting the shuttle enough for the Chinese to smash home. The next point, Shi tapped a winner only for Verma to protest that his opponent struck the shot from inside the Indian’s half.
Mentally, he did not recover from that point. “When I was down 21-20, I kept thinking about that tap,” explains the World No 14. “Then when the next service came, I thought this is the last point so I should play whatever happens. Then I was thinking, should I play the service or not. So these three things kept playing in my head. Yeh sochte sochte match haar gaya.”
Verma was always going to be an unlikely participant in a tournament that has boasted badminton’s elite. An injury-ravaged 2017 saw him fall to as low as 46th in the rankings by February this year.
Yet that allowed him to sail under the radar, free of major responsibilities the size of the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Along the way he did pick up titles in Switzerland, Hyderabad, and at the Syed Modi International just last month.
But playing in Guangzhou – the only Indian men’s singles player at the event – he had a chance to make his biggest impression on the badminton circuit. And he was just one point away from doing much better.
“At (match point), I should have taken a break,” he says. “I was just trying to hurry things up. But after losing the point, in my mind I felt that ek point hai, aa jayega. I had fought for every point till 20-19, but I still hadn’t won. Then I started thinking about that fault that didn’t come my way. I have to learn to control my mind in such situations,” he adds.
Improving mental toughness
Focusing on improving his mental toughness is his priority, now that he has worked hard on staying injury free. The physical aspect, in fact, remained his biggest goal this term, given the injuries he suffered in 2017.
“The biggest change this year was that I had planned my tournaments very carefully because I wanted to be injury-free this year,” he says. “Last year I pushed myself and got injured. I had to start looking after the body and playing.”
An over-packed schedule made him susceptible to “knots and stiffness.” Countering that would require something as basic as the pre-match warm-up routine to be altered.
“Earlier the warm-up used to be maybe 15 minutes long before every match,” he says. “Now it’s anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes.”
Verma’s skill – particularly his variations at the net and defensive capabilities – were bolstered by his body being freed of the ailments that held him back previously.
He’s worked extensively with physiotherapists at every tournament he has competed in this year. And by February, at the Swiss Open, he got the better of Momota in straight-sets in the quarterfinal, before ousting 2015 World Championship bronze medallist Jan O Jorgensen in the final – his second win in as many encounters against the veteran Dane. By the time the World Tour Finals came about, there were expectations for Verma to make the cut – he did so after the crucial triumph at the Syed Modi International (“First of all I never expected to even be in the tournament,” he says).
Getting to as far as the semi-final gave him a glimpse of what it’s like to get to such a stage at a major event, and what it will take to go forward.