In a split second, Ashmita Chaliha pulled off a series of twists and turns and one unexpected smash that left her opponent, the top seed Ksenia Polikarpova, rooted to the spot and another point closer to an unlikely defeat.
The world No.62 did everything right till that point, lunged and dribbled to stay in the rally. Then she lobbed. A neat jab over Chaliha who had been lured to the net. It would take something outrageous to get the shuttlecock back into play, let alone find a winner. In a heartbeat, Chaliha turned, leapt backwards, and with her back facing the net, played a no-look backhand smash down the line winner in the pre-quarterfinals.
“I got that one by watching videos of Lee Chong Wei,” she says, smiling after the 18-21, 21-16, 21-12 win. “Sometimes I copy his shots. It just comes out for me.” India’s brightest young player, a left-hander with a bag of tricks, has steadily been making waves in the domestic circuit.
In Mumbai for the Tata Open International Challenge, the World No.282 had to start her campaign in the qualifying round. Buoyed by the win over the top seed, she went on to win her next two matches without dropping a game to get to the final of her second-ever international tournament as a senior. By no means though, is this unchartered territory for the 19-year-old. After all, when she competed in her maiden senior international event in Dubai a fortnight ago, she progressed through the qualifiers and shocked the field by winning the title.
“I really didn’t expect that to happen at all,” she says. “It was my first international, I was to play a few of the top seeds and I had no clue that I could actually win. It was a big surprise for me, but once I got to the final I started to think, aaj isko maarna hai.”
And so she did, winning each of her six matches without dropping a single game. That is exactly what has been expected from the Assamese southpaw. Her name has been resonating in the domestic stream for a while now – she’s the current joint No.2 in Indian rankings. So much so that after winning her first senior ranking tournament in Hyderabad in June, she earned a spot in the Indian contingent for the Asian Games team. And to her surprise, she smiles again as she explains, she had a certain Saina Nehwal as her roommate.
“I had met just once before but never managed to speak to her,” Chaliha says. “And here she was my roommate who was giving me some good ideas into what I should do. Like, she used to talk to me about my food habits, asked me what all I eat and then said ‘oily khana mat khao.'”
“For me,” she adds, “I’ve seen these top players only on TV, but now I was watching them live. In a way I could understand what all is expected from me as well in the next few years.”
Deceptive, quick and with a penchant for playing attacking shots from a defensive position, Chaliha didn’t exactly have a smooth start in the sport. In fact, her father had wanted her to play tennis. “I used to play state and district level tennis and thought she should start too, but the courts nearby had closed for renovation,” explains Dhrubajyoti Chaliha. “The only other courts in Guwahati at the time were very far, but there was a badminton stadium just down the road. So I though, why not.” Badminton proved to be an ideal activity, particularly during the harsh winters of the mountainous North-East, but Chaliha, who was just six when she started, wasn’t exactly a natural.
“Bohot haarti thi,” says her father. “Hara bhi hai, roya bhi hai. Ab ro ro ke hasna seekha.” It took one surprise win, when she was playing an U-13 event in her home state that kicked things off for her. Then results started to follow in the All-India events.
Earlier this year, the teenager was put under the tutelage of Indonesian coach Edwin Iriawan, along with her regular coach in Assam Suranjan Bhobora. In that time she asserts to have become quicker on her feet and much more aggressive on court. But her coaches don’t always travel with her. Her father does. “I’m in the construction business, but since I’m always travelling with her, the business is a flop,” he says, laughing. “But it’s important for someone to be around with her just in these initial years. Until she’s on her own feet.” That day might not be far off.
In Dubai, in her first ever international, she came up with a surprise win. Now she’s exceeded all expectations in Mumbai to get to the final. That trend of pulling off surprises is mirrored by the southpaw’s game: a pleasant cocktail of grit and trickery.