Ashmita Chaliha has an ambitious full-fledged jump smash. As a southpaw, it’s her decisive weapon. But her live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword approach has also made her terribly prone to injuries. Two years since that shot created a buzz around the Assamese World No. 84, Chaliha showed she can retrace her precarious steps – like rewinding a tape two clicks back, frame by patient frame – and be more than a one-trick pony.
In beating World No. 28 Evgeniya Kosetskaya 24-22, 21-16 in 31 minutes in Round 1 of the India Open, Chaliha displayed maturity that has eluded her these last few years. She led the tall Russian 11-5 in the opener, and then 19-16, before freezing to gift her opponent two game points. Then in an alchemic mix of what Chaliha calls “safe and attacking” trailing 21-22, she would get the job done with three of her most important points of the last two years.
A 21-16 scoreline in Game 2 was a dressing of the same confidence in her game – something that she could carry further into this season.
Chaliha’s early coach Suranjan recalls his reticent ward crying copiously once after losing from a 20-19 situation. “She could go blank earlier at the crunch. And play negative. But today, she seemed to have crossed that hurdle,” he said from Guwahati, adding that Indonesian coach Erwin had worked on keeping the shuttle in the middle of the court and not hitting out wildly at crucial junctures.
In juniors typically, where shuttlers played 2-3 matches a day, Chaliha was prone to playing rash shots in evening matches – pointing to a mental brittleness that comes from sub-par fitness. On Tuesday at the Indira Gandhi Stadium, Chaliha refused to self-destruct.
“In 20-20 situations, my only strategy was to play safe and continue with the rally until my opponent gives up. And I’m happy that I could pull it off,” she would say later, adding that her attacking game had helped when tempered with mindful discretion.
Kosetskaya had won their earlier face-off in Russia, in straight games, back in July 2019. The 23-year-old Indian, playing sharper on home turf, burst out of the blocks, to upset the fifth seed, in the first big event after pandemic-mangled two years.
Once tipped to be the natural successor to PV Sindhu owing to her unique southpaw game and blazing bouts of attack, Chaliha had lost out on two seasons, starved of competition, and nervous in the few times she travelled out to play smaller international events.
“It was a tough time and torturous,” she would explain her state of mind as her transition from juniors to seniors overlapped with the savagery of the virus bringing life to a standstill in Guwahati. “It’s been tough, more so because there were lockdowns and curfews imposed and as such practice a lot of times became irregular,” she says.
Her father, Dhruba Jyoti Chaliha dubs it a 24-month wipe-out. “It was really tough because two years just got wasted. But nevertheless, we told her that just keep practising and don’t lose hope. Work more on your weak points,” he recalls. She would work on her dribbles and attacks. “I did a lot of specific standing strokes at the net,” Chaliha added. “I also did different kinds of agility, mostly for speed and movements.”
Yet, the forced time away might’ve chiselled the sharpest muscle needing sharpening: the heart. For long considered a little laidback in her hunger to win – or in working up the fitness for it at any rate – Chaliha might well find the spark plug in this win. “Yes, she’s ambitious. Also stubborn,” her father attests, adding that she frequently goes to Bengaluru for sparring with top players.
Start in the outback
Dipankar Bhattacharyya was the local shuttle legend in Guwahati. But it was Krishna Dekaraja two decades ago who was considered India’s most promising shuttler, right before Saina Nehwal emerged. That career would fade out, but Suranjan, a Railways shuttler and her contemporary, would firm up his mind to take up coaching.
Chaliha Sr, a tennis player, remembers, “There was no provision for any tennis courts near where we were situated. Whatever tennis one could play, had to travel a really long distance. Since we wanted Ashmita to play some sport and be active, badminton was the only racquet sport available.”
A massive fan of Lee Chong Wei, Chaliha would start jump-smashing well before she got to 5ft-6. “Her grip and strokes were natural. Even the jump smash was her own. She realised it could make her ‘extraordinary’ in her group and learnt it with the boys I guess,” Suranjan recalls.
Still with little knowledge of a fitness base, injuries continued to stall progress. “We had no social life when we were players, and barely met families, such was the obsession. Injuries due to bad courts would invariably end careers. With Ashmita, we are trying to improve,” the coach says.
Yet, it was a nasty bout of Covid plus a bunch of injuries that muddied her return to action in 2021. Chaliha has decent deception on her forehand cross-courts and her backhand pickups at the net have the blitz as she intercepts the shuttle high. But staying fit remains a concern.
Her body language needs bolstering at the clutch, especially. “She’s not much of a rebel. Listens to everything she’s told. But yes, maybe the aggression can come with being assertive,” he says. The one thing that Chaliha could learn from Carolina Marin, though the two southpaws have distinct games.
Mostly introverted, Chaliha has her close-knit friends, and enjoys photography. “She and her friends click really candid ugly pictures of us coaches and make memes out of them. And even if we’re the butt of the joke, we can’t help laughing. She’s very funny that way,” Suranjan says.
There’s a fine balance Chaliha needs to strike between the fun-n-jokes and getting serious about badminton. “We don’t want her to take pressure. Best she enjoys when she plays because competition is intense. If she plays Sindhu (they might in quarters), I want her to create a happy memory irrespective of the result and play freely,” the coach ends.