Priyanshu Rajawat played the men’s singles ‘final’ of badminton’s selection trials on Wednesday, trying to reverse a loss against Kiran George from last month, and more crucially, spurred by the immense looming shadow of the country’s brightest new star, Lakshya Sen. “There is a lot of pressure to win big matches on the new generation, watching Lakshya Sen do so well,” Rajawat admits candidly. The 20-year-old knows earning the chance to be on the Thomas Cup and Asian Games team, is only the first step, given India now boasts formidable singles contenders in Kidambi Srikanth, Sen and HS Prannoy, which means Rajawat is aware he might have to bid his time, yet be ready to step up at short notice, if summoned to play the third singles mostly. But first, there was Kiran George’s efficiency to get past at the trials. Rajawat recalls how the Bangalore player’s steady game had buried him in the Orissa Open Super 100 final just last month.
Attempting to avenge that in the rematch included strict instructions from coaches at the Gopichand Academy to ration his aggression, and earn the right to squeal. “I had lost to Kiran George in that final. So both the coaches and me analysed that loss very minutely. Thoda chillao lekin point lene ke baad hi (pump fists and scream only after taking the point), I was told. Too much aggression isn’t great,” says the youngster, a fan of Virat Kohli who tries a few cricket shots like the icon in weekend matches.
In Wednesday’s playoff at the trials, Rajawat needed to stay patient – it’s been his downfall at times, the rushing – while Kiran made uncharacteristic errors on his cross net and drops in the decider. Earlier he had botched the second losing control of the shuttle in the 21-15, 18-21, 21-10 win, as the Bangalorean rallied to level. Then Kiran couldn’t find his wits about him in trying to close out, where Rajawat pounced on his defensive bashfulness, and attacked when he sensed retreat. “I spoilt the second set very badly, thinking jeet gayaa, jeet gayaa (I’ve won). Then I stopped thinking that way and told myself it wasn’t won till all 21 points were taken. Memories of Orissa loss were raw, so I had strategised very carefully.”
Vrooming with a roll of the wrist on the accelerator mindlessly is an old problem for Rajawat, given that he had a free rein on the clutch to yank up gears, and no need for braking when younger.
Speed, double-edged sword
Priyanshu was picked up for Gopichand’s Gwalior academy at age 8, precisely because the scrawny kid from Dhar in MP had lightening feet and hands. “He was very thin, but had unbelievable leg speed and hand speed from the net and back – almost Srikanth-like,” recalls academy coach Siyadatullah of the under-10 kid. “Being lean, strength was a problem and he had no power, so he never won anything till under-16s,” he adds.
With the Srikanth comparison, come Srikanth-problems too. Both rushed and couldn’t contain momentum when pushing the speed throttle in younger years, and barely had the leg strength to control and channel that head-rush of specific talent. “We are still working on his need to control speed. Being aggressive, he rushes and thinks he can reach wherever on court without the ability to control the placement of the stroke,” the coach says. Crucial unnecessary errors and wild hitting follows, though the last few months have seen a marked change.
“Gopichand sir would stand behind and keep telling me to be patient. He’d pointed out the mistake very early and asked me to start meditation because I was too impatient,” he recalls of mistakes raining down on court because he just couldn’t help himself. “Being too fast is a problem. When the shuttle is fast, I’m trying to finish points quickly and I’m at the net suddenly and…” Then he recalls instances like against Belgian Julien Carraggi at the Orleans Masters recently, when he whacked without thinking much and botched the match .
It’s something he’s been doing since age 6, revelling in his speed while following older brother Kunal to training in Dhar and then at Gwalior. “I tried football and didn’t enjoy. But with a racquet in hand, I just loved hitting the shuttle. Leaving home at 8 was tough, but you get used to it,” he says wryly, now having lived a decade in Hyderabad, shifting as soon as coaches saw potential. “It’s in Hyderabad that my speed, strokes perfection, accuracy, power and body fitness started falling into place.”
His father, originally hailing from Rajasthan ran a Xerox business, while his mother is a home-maker. Kunal focused on studies eventually, and sister Taneea Rajawat is an actor. “They don’t pressure me, but they are all accomplished. I should also become good,” he says. Rajawat first came into focus with a win in the PBL. “But there were many losses. Infact playing internationals has opened my eyes to just how low my level of talent was. And how I’ll have to work a lot to even belong to the international level,” he says with much self-awareness. The joke in the academy is “Priyanshu saadhu banne chala hai”. He’s turning monkish living at the academy, quietening a bit, losing some of his earlier laidback nature, because seriousness has crept into him with the realisation that the international level is a different beast. “Plus we lost two years to Covid, when I should’ve transitioned and peaked to seniors,” he rues. A 2016 injury and return had wisened him too, as it took longer to heal, eating into competition time. “Mentally I had to learn to cope.”
Training with India’s best has influenced him too. There is the obvious comparison with Srikanth, and him trying to riff off a few strokes. “Yes I like Srikanth’s half-smash”. But it’s Sameer (Verma) bhaiyya and Gopi sir’s game at the net which I’m influenced by. Just Sameer’s reflexes and Sir’s thinking are too good to follow,” he says. There’s also Prannoy’s match aggression and Sai Praneeth’s tricky strokes that the understudy tries to imbibe. From Lakshya, Rajawat wants to learn ambition. “To beat the best in the world.”
Having stayed away from home in Hyderabad, stepping out only on weekends to malls for movies, Rajawat has almost picked Telugu now, and loves the local fare that’s served up. “Bas bachpan miss karta hoo (I miss childhood) from Dhar,” he says, having left home at 8. “And my mother’s daal baati.” The domestic playoff win against Kiran George was impressive because Rajawat could use aggression to puncture George’s confidence in the decider. His smash and quick turns from the back-court were eye-catching and the young man has always been a good listener, absorbing advice around him. “But at the Asian Games and Thomas Cup, he’ll learn from Srikanth and others about preparing for big events, recovery and managing the body in a big tournament.” Siadatt says. “I’ll know only when I reach there how tough it is. Haarnaa gandaa lagtaa hai. (It feels wretched to lose). I have to be prepared for it to be very tough,” he laughs.
Why focus on doubles, U-23 will pay dividends
Badminton Association of India’s comprehensive trials to pick squads for the Thomas Uber Cup as well as CWG and Asian Games, opens up a detailed pathway for domestic talent to crack the top India teams, and has been transparent in nitty gritties. Instead of a one-off knockout trial, this process started with identifying those worthy of trials, with two prior ranking tournaments in Bangalore and Hyderabad.
With a two-stage round-robin it gave enough opportunities to 16 national players in each category, emerging out of a constricting pandemic lockdown to stake claim on India spots with the senior generation fading out. This guarantees no immediate international success for India, but with 14 of the Asiad squad of 20, under 23 years, the baton to be passed is not left dangling.
Realistically, much will depend on how well the youngsters prepare and can respond to being called upon to play the big matches and the gust of sheer international speed of rallies, but the trials have identified the best domestically equipped at least. Another heartening aspect is equal attention given to doubles personnel, as India looks to broadbase its repertoire into paired games, with a bunch of teens and early-20s bringing in energy.