As Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu battle the best at the World Championships in Basel, the quest is on at home to unearth the next rung of players who can follow in their footsteps. Ashmita Chaliha is one of the promising players who is expected to make the grade at the highest level in the next few years.
The 19-year-old from Assam is rated the next best Indian player after Sindhu and Nehwal by the former chief national coach, U Vimal Kumar, who monitors her progress as she keeps dropping in at his Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru, to spar with the best juniors of the country like former world number one junior, Lakshya Sen, training under him.
The trainee of Indonesian Edwin Iriawan at the Assam Badminton Academy in Guwahati—he was part of the national coaching set up from 2010 to 2014—the 19-year-old is making steady improvement and has broken into the top 100 at the senior level.
Last year, after she won senior national ranking tournaments, she was selected in the squad for the Asian Games, and made a mark at international level. She won the Dubai International title last November, and the Tata Open in Mumbai a fortnight later.
“The difference between the level of competition in domestic and international is all about speed; plus top internationals can change their game, and have a variety of strokes,” she says from Bengaluru, where she trains before important tournaments.
“I have to work a lot harder as everyone else is. Whatever I am doing right now, if I have to grow I have to double my effort—perfect whatever is not there in my game.”
Ashmita got a taste of world class opposition when she faced Sindhu in the semi-finals of the senior nationals in her hometown in February. She was tamed 21-10 by Sindhu in the first game, but the southpaw fought back to lead 19-16 in the second. The Rio Olympics silver medallist won the game and match but not before Ashmita had pushed her (22-20).
“She was too fast, I took time to adjust; I just couldn’t match her. I played well in the second game, but got excited and made errors. Otherwise I could have at least pushed the match into the decider,” says Ashmita. “After the match, Sindhu said my game is getting better but I have to work on some areas.”
Saina Nehwal is no less an inspiration. The London Olympics bronze medallist was her roommate at the Asian Games. With Nehwal and Sindhu available, she didn’t get to play in Jakarta, but it was still a learning process.
“We (with Saina) discussed about the games of other top players, the diet I need to have, etc. She has a very powerful game and her net play is superb,” says Ashmita. “We also talked a lot about food,” adds the foodie, who loves Chinese cuisine and visits eateries wherever she travels abroad.
An aggressive player who likes to finish points quickly, one of her early scalps was Liang Ting Yu of Chinese Taipei, who she beat in three games in the Hong Kong Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championships in March.
Ashmita’s progress has been steady. Last November, she was world No 282 but wins in Dubai and Mumbai lifted her to 191 soon after. She climbed to 129 in March before breaking into the top 100 in July. “My goal is to enter the top 50 by the end of the year,” said the world No 89, whose best ranking was two rungs higher.
“I will next play the Vietnam Open (September), Dubai International and Indonesia Masters (both in October) apart from a few zonal tournaments in India,” she says.
Ashmita took up badminton after her father, a tennis player, wanted both his daughters in sports. “The badminton stadium was very close to our place and I joined at the age of seven. My elder sister Harshita also played badminton at the nationals but an ankle injury halted her career,” says Ashmita, who also occasionally plays tennis.
“I love shopping, especially for phones and shoes. Earlier, I used to change my phone every six months but now it is once a year,” says the teenager, who uses an iPhone X for now.