Sameer Verma grabs rare chance at stardom at World Tour Finals

Sameer Verma in action against Shi Yuqi in the semi-finals of the World Tour Finals Zhe Ji/Getty Images

It has been a bit of a busy week for Sameer Verma in Guangzhou so he can be forgiven for turning incommunicado.

His older brother Sourabh has not heard from him since he'd dropped him off at the Hyderabad airport a week ago.

On Saturday, the world No. 14, who has flown under the radar for the most part of his career, came agonisingly close to a spot in the year-ender finals, before losing 21-12, 20-22, 21-17. From a match point up against World No. 2 Shi Yuqi, he found himself hurled into the belly of a decider. Trailing 5-7, there was an ominous sign. He scraped a finger on his racket-bearing right hand and had to get it taped. He managed to reel off the next two points and perhaps shut out the voice in his head.

Injuries have been a particularly decisive part of the 24-year-old's journey. Breaking into the top-100 in 2012 as a 17-year-old, recurrent injuries pushed back his flowering into a top-50 player by close to three years. He made a splash in 2016, becoming only the third Indian male player to reach the finals of a Superseries tournament at the Hong Kong Open and by September 2017, he had touched a career-high ranking of 18. Again, his body revolted. This time, a shoulder injury kept him out for over three months.

What saw him through these long, crushing periods, brother Sourabh says, was the ability to look beyond his immediate condition. "It was almost like a drill," the world No. 46 Indian, older to Sameer by two years, says. "He'd have some good results, make headway in the rankings and then it would all come crumbling down after an injury and he'd again have to start from zero."

It's almost like a game of Jenga - block-stacking, stack-crashing.

At the start of this year Sameer, 24, probably wouldn't have waged money on his chances of getting to the World Tour Finals. Formerly known as Superseries Finals, the year-end tournament is seen as a barometer of a player's performance through the season and there's only room for the top eight in each of the five competitive categories.

This year, Sameer was the only Indian male player to make it to that elite hangout.

The recent restructuring of the tournament's qualification criteria also worked in his favour. Earlier, only players with most points from the calendar's 12 events were considered. This year, the ambit was widened to include 37 tournaments. So, you could be winning and picking up points at the smaller events and still stand a chance to qualify. It's exactly what Sameer did. In fact, it was his title win at the Syed Modi World Tour Super 300 in Lucknow, the final qualifying event alongside the Scottish Open last month, which snuck him into the final eight.

Sourabh was away competing in the Korea Open when Sameer was making last-ditch attempts at qualifying for the year-ender. "The thing was," says Sourabh, "we weren't sure if even making the Syed Modi finals was good enough to assure him a spot. I watched highlights of the final on my phone later and could just tell how excited and happy he was. You know when you have just one chance and you manage to turn that around it's always a special feeling."

Of course, all of this could only come together for Sameer because it happened to be a rare year his body has been free from strappings and his calendar didn't have whole chunks of weeks circled out for rehab.

He owes much of it to the fresh approach he has now sworn to. "He's gained from listening to his body," says Sourabh. "Striking the right balance between training and competition has been crucial and he's now careful to not to push his body when there's resistance."

Sameer isn't quite the flashy player with strokes that make you sit up or choke on your drink. He's workmanlike with a solid defence, retrieving for a living. On Saturday, he retrieved like a maniac on a mission.

"When you look at his game," coach Vimal Kumar says, "he may not come across as special. But he's effective. He keeps the shuttle in play, has good pace and commits few mistakes. So if you're not really on top of the shuttle, he can beat you. Nobody can take him lightly."

Yuqi certainly couldn't afford to. He'd lost to Sameer in their previous meeting at the Denmark Open in October this year. In February, he pulled off a major scalp at the Swiss Open, beating Kento Momota, the current world No 1 who's the stuff of nightmares and is setting the circuit on fire. India's top ranked singles player Kidambi Srikanth hasn't had a win against the Japanese in their past seven meetings.

National coach Pullela Gopichand, under whose tutelage the brothers have been since they were kids, was impressed with Sameer's searing run in the tournament. "You know he could have pulled off the match today, which also shows that he's capable of such top level performance. Overall, I think it was amazing the way Sameer played today and this should give him a lot to look forward to in the year ahead," he told ESPN.

"Both boys (Sameer and Sourabh) are very focused and quiet," Vimal adds, "They aren't much in the limelight and have excellent work ethic and discipline. Whenever I've met Sameer at a tournament or a training session and casually offered a suggestion, I've seen him work on it with earnesty. That's always a nice trait for a young player."

Sourabh is willing to offer up the 'better player' tag to his brother voluntarily and says he has big hopes for him in the year ahead. However, they aren't exactly the back-slapping buddies that one might imagine siblings to be. "He doesn't fool around too much with me. It's always been that way since we were young. There's a bit of a respectful distance. It's only when I see him with his friends that I get to know what a prankster he is."

They're also poles apart in tastes and hobbies. Barring badminton and home food, Sourabh struggles to think of a third common area of interest before giving up.

"I normally get him clothing brand vouchers because he loves to wear nice-looking shirts and he brings me gadgets and fancy headphones whenever he travels abroad. But the way he's performed in this tournament, I really can ask for nothing more."

This time around, Sourabh knows his gift has arrived early.