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Assam's Ashmita Chaliha turns India's latest badminton sensation

Former national team coach Vimal Kumar believes that amongst upcoming players Ashmita Chaliha's style of play is most suited for success at the international level. BAI media

A few months ago, Ashmita Chaliha, as part of the Indian badminton team, got a surprise when she walked into her room at the Asian Games village in Jakarta. Unpacking her luggage inside was Saina Nehwal.

"I really couldn't believe I was going to be sharing a room with Saina. It was such a surreal moment for me. In fact I didn't even say anything until Saina asked me if I wanted to get something to eat," says Chaliha.

The 19-year-old was only part of the minor berths of the Asian Games squad and never even got to play a single match in Indonesia. She still, though, marvels at the opportunity to share the same space with the greats of Indian and Asian badminton. "I got pictures with Lin Dan and Kento Momota too," she says.

But Chaliha might not be satisfied with simply rubbing shoulders for much longer. Many veterans of the sport consider her among the brightest prospects for the next generation of Indian women's singles players.

She reached the semifinals of the National Championships in Guwahati, before going down to Olympic silver medalist PV Sindhu. Chaliha had her moments in that loss too, leading 19-16 at one point in the second game before eventually going down 21-10 22-20.

"Of all the upcoming players I have seen in Guwahati, I was impressed the most by Ashmita. Her style of play is most suited for success at the international level," says former national coach Vimal Kumar.

Vimal had watched the tournament in Guwahati alongside four-time All England champion Morten Frost who he says echoed his sentiments. "Morten too thought she has the most potential," he says.

Chaliha's opponent in that semifinal, Sindhu, too seems to agree.

"I have been seeing her for a long time. She has improved a lot and she has got some great strokes. If she works hard, she will definitely come up. She will do well in a couple of years," Sindhu said after the match.

While she is being marked out as one to watch for the future, badminton wasn't even Chaliha's first interest.

Assam has produced exceptional players in the past - including Dipankar Bhattacharya who won three national titles and represented India at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics - but there have been few players of note in recent years.

"I didn't really care too much about badminton when I was young. My dad was a tennis player and he wanted me to play a sport. The only reason I picked up badminton was because our home was near the Sports Authority of India in Guwahati where they were teaching badminton," says Chaliha.

Her interest grew as she began winning age group titles but also as Saina emerged onto the national scene. "I would follow everything Saina did. When she kept winning, I also wanted to be like her," she says. But Saina was only one of Chaliha's influence. In her room, a poster of Saina shares space with Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei.

Chaliha says she tries to play like the three-time Olympic silver medalist as much as she can. It's that aspect of her game that's particularly draws eyeballs.

"She plays unlike most Indian women players," says Vimal. "She'll chase everything, she'll make incredible saves, and dive for everything. You can almost say she has a boy's game."

Chaliha admits this is so. "I practice with the boys. I've always done that. I don't have a 'girly-girl' game."

This doesn't surprise Suranjan Bhobhora, Chaliha's coach in Guwahati. "She's always identified more with the men's singles players," he says. It isn't just her retrieving that draws from the men's game. "You won't see many women's players who hit a lot of jump smashes but she does that."

Chaliha's career took giant strides in 2018, where she won two international titles - the TATA Open and Dubai International - and also qualified for the Asian Games squad after winning a senior ranking tournament in Hyderabad.

There's admittedly a long way for Chaliha to go yet. She's only ranked 179 in the world and there's work to be done on her game, but Vimal is optimistic.

"She's got a lot of advantages. She's difficult to play as a left handed player because there's so few of them in international badminton [Carolina Marin is perhaps the most successful in women's game in recent years]. She's also very fast, quite young and she doesn't seem as injury prone as either Rituparna Das or Ruthvika Shivani Gadde [who were expected to be the next generation of Indian badminton]. She has all the strokes. But she needs more fitness. She needs to work on her temperament and attitude. She sometimes gives up and you can see her shoulders drop," says Vimal.

The gap that remains between her and the very best was apparent to Chaliha herself in her loss to Sindhu. "There were moments where I was in control of the game but I let it go. I got too nervous and I made mistakes. There were times where I was catching her but I was not able to build on that. She is a world-class player and she knows when to push herself even more. That was the difference," admits Chaliha.

While there's room for improvement, what the youngster from Guwahati also has is time. "I've made the semifinals which I was not expecting so I'm happy that I got this far. But I know I can't be satisfied. I'm going to work with coach Erwin [Iriawan, who joined the Assam Badminton Academy in 2017 after a stint with the Indonesian National team] on my strength a lot more this year. Although I'm fast, I'm still not strong enough. I'm also going to play some more small tournaments," she says.

That's not the eventual goal though. "I've got the experience of playing with the best in the world and I need to do that more now," she says.