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Monday, March 01, 2021

Sameer Verma: The giant-killer under the radar

Verma has the game to beat the top names - he's beaten Kento Momota, the last Indian to manage that. But needs an injection of confidence to stay convinced about his own ability.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: January 20, 2021 3:10:11 pm
Sameer Verma, Badminton player Sameer VermaSameer Verma beat Malaysian Lee Zii Jia on Tuesday at Thailand Open. (Twitter/BWF)

There’s a Cheteshwar Pujara in Indian badminton: his defense is watchable and he’s done well in his career without shuttle’s power weapon, the big smash. Nobody quite launches into him like they do the cricketer, low-key sport, soft-spoken barely audible shuttler and all, that Sameer Verma is.

But it’s easy for fans to stay indifferent to his losses and temper expectations, because when he wins he gives the impression that he merely gets by. Unless, he fetches up and scalps a biggie – on Tuesday at Thailand, it was World No 10, Malaysian Lee Zii Jia, winning 18-21, 27-25, 21-19.

Right about the time Rishabh Pant was switching gears from draw to win in Brisbane, Verma was a set and 17-6 down in Bangkok. This after he’d led 14-7 in the opener, to flatline and lose the set. Trailing 3-11 in the second, Verma would start the turnaround after something coach Agus Dwi Santoso repeated: “keep playing your style.”

National coach, P Gopichand, watching from Hyderabad was glued to the badminton, knowing cricket was on the verge of history, but unable to flip channels while Sameer charted his own quiet comeback, while backing his style.
For the uninitiated, Sameer is shorter than your usual men’s singles player: like Antony Ginting, but minus that jump and that smash. He has a hypnotic slingy net game though – that can keep you away from a TV remote – and a defense that can’t be called dour, but which is the bedrock of his game. He cleverly defends cross with his snappy hand-speed, a good amount of deception, and a dependable overhead cross-court. But no big smash.

On Tuesday, staring down the barrel, words of his coaches boomed back from the depths in the second set. “Emotionally, I was thinking how to win the second game. I was down after losing the first game, mentally it was tough to lose after having such a big lead….But after the break my coach said, keep playing your style. I followed his advice,” Verma told BWF.

Lee would sense it too – the sudden strategic switch. It was like light breaking through the cracks sharply, as Verma would start exploiting the angles and working the big rallies. Not many like getting dragged into long rallies with Sameer Verma. The 26-year-old sniffs weaknesses like an expert canine, and has the bite in pinpoint placement of shots to go for a kill. Who needs the big jaws roaring smash, when pincer cuts can achieve the same effect?

Backing his own creative defense and snapping shut all errors with discipline against seven match points, he would finally level at 27-25. Verma doesn’t get credit for the errors he draws out, but there’s plenty that would fall in the forced bracket.

“From the start I made a lot of mistakes. Luckily I overcame and won that,” Lee would say, adding, “Second set I was leading by a lot.. But Sameer Verma’s strategy changed.Tough game. Third Sameer led all the way.

He did well from the second set. Also Sameer played better than me today.”

Verma has the game to beat the top names – he’s beaten Kento Momota, the last Indian to manage that. But needs an injection of confidence to stay convinced about his own ability.

Bouts of doubts can spread like a rash through his mind when his leads are snatched away, like in the opener. “I played my game, my style. Good win for me. Much more confident in the second round,” he’d say.

Equipped with perhaps the least weapons amongst India’s men’s singles crop – his limitations are glaring: the physicality for the kill smash. But this also makes him the most disciplined of the lot on the court, and more conscious of not getting too fancy and frittering in errors. His precision as the tide turned against Lee was proof of that self-awareness – of the missing smash from his arsenal. Knowing fully well he’ll need those 2-3 strokes extra to finish off the rally.

“For Sameer to excel since he won’t power through opposition, he needs to be maneuvering opponents and finding an opening and finishing it. He needs to have a level of confidence and needs to get into the match. And be fully fit,” Gopichand says. “What he played today was very precise. And it is very refreshing to see this style of badminton win against top players. Overall very good win. This is one of the better matches I’ve seen Sameer play. Some of the rallies were really top notch, best I’ve seen him play.”

He would be troubled by an ankle and hadn’t quite landed in Bangkok brimming with confidence. Ranked 32 – seventh amongst Indians – India’s men’s singles shuttlers, Sameer, brother Sourabh, HS Prannoy and P Kashyap form a formidable pack – but is not entitled to funding, reserved for Top 25.

Which also means that Sameer hasn’t travelled to Bangkok with a dedicated physio. Indonesian coach Agus sits for his matches, but isn’t obliged to, since he’s not in the camp. Verma has never complained, but it also means he’s left to fend for himself, especially since his style of play (compensating with speed and nous for power) makes rough demands on his body.

So when he wins, he’s trampolining over adversity at all times.

“If he manages to be in the striking zone of rankings, and the moment he gets good conditions, he should be able to get big wins,” Gopichand says. “He may not be the most consistent player on the circuit but he can still get consistently good results against big names. He will have to accept some losses as it’s okay and move on rather than harp on bad results,” the coach adds.

On a day of ‘nice guys winning’, Sameer stayed nice and nicked another Top Ten. It’s on days he loses that support will need to flow his way, because he’s too nice to even complain.

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