Smashing Sameer Verma sets sights on top 5 after breakthrough 2018


December 15, 2018. It's the first semifinal of the World Tour Finals. After a rapid exchange of drop shots at the net (serve-drop-drop-net), World No. 12 Sameer Verma has a match point against World No. 2 Shi Yu Qi. He had won the first game at a breeze, 21-12, and now it's 20-19 in the second. One shot, and he is into the final. His brain has gone into overdrive.

"I had three thoughts," he says. "20 is over. The excitement that the match is still remaining. And from behind me, Gopi sir (P. Gopichand) is telling me, 'If you win this there is one more match, if you lose this there's still a game left'. I wasn't able to understand all this, for me it was all about the excitement."

He would go on to lose the next three points, cede the game and the initiative -- losing the third and decisive game 17-21.

January 09, 2019. Verma -- leading the charge of the Mumbai Rockets in the PBL -- is relaxed. He's lost just one match in the tournament (a 3-game thriller to Bengaluru Raptors' B Sai Praneeth, on Tuesday) -- he's started the new year in the same kind of form that he ended the last with, consistently impressive.

Every athlete has a year that they point back to and say 'this was it; this was when I made it'. For Verma -- currently the second highest ranked Indian on the men's half of the BWF calendar, second only to former world no.1 and CWG silver medallist Kidambi Srikanth -- that year was 2018.

He won three tour titles, played in his first World Tour finals -- the only Indian man to do so this year -- and broke into the top 15. "I hadn't expected the year to be so good, but I had started it with the conviction that I must do something different, something new," he says.

That something different started with the fundamentals -- keeping his body healthy.

After having suffered a spate of injuries through the past few years, Verma knew that consistency in fitness was the primary target.

"In 2018, I concentrated on my body, on my physical conditioning," he says. He has five physios who work with him, and he ensured that at least one of them was with him wherever he went. "When I finally became injury free in 2017, I decided we must plan everything down to the last detail. I decided that if I have to skip a tournament, I would do it rather than risk aggravating any minor injury. Rather skip it than have to start from zero after a 2-3 month injury lay-off."

Conditioning, though, wasn't limited to just the body.

"There's a psychological aspect to this also. I have worked on that. I have a psychologist, a friend. Working with my physios and coach, they plan both my mental and physical conditioning," he says before talking about how the biggest learning he's taken from 2018 is the need to maintain focus.

Take for instance that crucial second game of the World Tour final, when he says, "I had so many thoughts running through my head." Instead of replaying it in his head and drowning in 'what ifs', he has learnt his lesson, and moved on.

You see, it may have failed him at that moment, but he attributes his presence in the World Tour Finals to this newfound ability to maintain focus.

"It was one of my biggest problems earlier -- my mind would start racing -- after the first round I'd start thinking about who I'll meet in the finals. I was not in the present at the time. The mind is something that's so hard for us to control. And for a sportsman, the more you can remain in the present, in the now, the better it is."

It's not just on-court focus, either. "Until last year, when I was outside the court also I would think of badminton, and when I was on court, my head would be full... that put so much pressure on me. I don't think that can work", he says.

He has learnt from his peers at the very top to switch off badminton mode when outside the court. "PV Sindhu, Srikanth, Victor Axelson, Kento Momota, Carolina Marin... off-the court they do different things, fun things. For me it used to be, after one tournament, again it starts. 'OK, I've won, now I need to keep at it. I need to win the next one too'."

Lee Yong Dae, one of world badminton's true greats and Verma's teammate on the Mumbai Rockets, has also spoken to him about this. "Lee says that Indian players have the skill, but they feel like they are under a lot of pressure, that they keep thinking 'we must win'."

Verma is now learning to balance it all out. Work hard, but enjoy yourself. Keep challenging yourself, but remain calm under pressure. Remain in the 'now'.

He has clear aims for 2019 --"I want to break into the top 5" - and there's a hint of the endearing vulnerability that lies within all top-level sportspersons when he talks about not wanting to change things up too much.

"I won't do much different from what I've been doing. If I try something new, there are equally high chances that things can go wrong as there are of things improving. There's a little fear - I've reached here, now I shouldn't fall down. Jaisa hoon, waise hi rahoonga (I will remain the way I am). But there are a few tweaks, a few things that I can add to my game and I'll be doing that to improve it".

His presence in the World Tour Finals announced his arrival at the top of his sport, but he knows that staying at the top is a lot harder than getting there.

The PBL knockout rounds are around the corner, but unlike the years gone by, Verma is not going to let the results play with his state-of-mind. "[The top guys], whether they win or lose, they maintain a balance. I think that's the secret to staying at the top once you get there. Whether you win or you lose, you have to accept it equally and move on."

Game face on, Sameer Verma is ready to make 2019 his year.