PV Sindhu into India Open semis as Ashmita Chaliha inspires hope for the future

PV Sindhu in action against Ashmita Chaliha in the quarterfinals of the 2022 India Open in Delhi. BAI

The result was perhaps never quite in doubt. What piqued curiosity was how bright NextGen's promise shone when pitted against the incumbent superstar. If the 20-odd minutes montage of the second game was anything to go by, it sizzled. It wasn't the first time though.

To no surprise, PV Sindhu entered the semifinals of the India Open with a straight games 21-7, 21-18 win. But it was Ashmita Chaliha, the 22-year-old leftie with a pixie cut and flood-blooded jump smash, who propped herself on TV screens as one of the most exciting upcoming talents in Indian women's singles badminton. A limp first game later, she built points in the second and worked the double Olympic medallist before going out.

It's a script her coaches Edwin Iriwan and Suranjan at the Assam Badminton Academy anticipated. Iriwan's big parting pep talk to his pupil was to play the whole darn thing like it's the second game. It was sound advice rooted in precedent. Two years ago at the senior Nationals semis in her hometown Guwahati, Ashmita had gone down to Sindhu after an inspired second game - 21-10, 22-20. Friday's quarterfinal was almost a mirror image. It bears mention that the youngster played no tournaments in the last two years, recuperating from Covid herself and being limited to training sessions on Zoom for the greater part.

On Friday, she fumbled into errors in the opening game; loose strokes, mishits piled on mishits and inside the first five minutes she was trailing 5-11. Jangling nerves, thoughts crowding her mind, focusing too hard on plotting the next point. HS Prannoy's roars from adjacent Court 2 after every few clutch of points broke through what appeared to be a predictable Sindhu assault.

But nerves quietened down in time for the second game as the 84-ranked player sent her senior backpedalling - cracking open the court and dispatching a perfectly-cooked crosscourt into the backhand corner miles away from Sindhu's reach. The rallies lengthened, Sindhu began missing the lines and the youngster pounced on the net for a kill. Ashmita, who picked up her jump smash from watching YouTube videos of Lee Chong Wei and trying to mimic his action in training, launched her slender frame into the air, both feet off the ground, to whip a smash down the line. A no-look whodunit return that had Sindhu spray the line later, she was on level terms for the first time - 9-9.

A round-the-head, crosscourt slice winner by Sindhu had Ashmita sprawl in full lunge, grazing her forearm on court. Taping was called for. Welcome to the jungle. Sindhu, antsy to push affairs to a close, took her hand-speed a few frames quicker and let the youngster pick herself off the back-court, where she sat cross-legged after a fall, and find her feet.

Ordinarily, Ashmita and her lot of young Indian female players rarely find the chance to compete against or even spar with their sport's biggest names. The courts and tournaments Sindhu or Saina flit between in a regular calendar year are too rarefied for the bunch of 20-somethings to gain entry. Sindhu's coach Park Tae Sang had, a couple of days ago, expressly mentioned the need for the sport and its players to train and feed off each other to see long-term gains. Right now, despite being a sport that owns Olympic and World Championship medals, badminton lacks a focused plan in the country and training is scattershot. Players are bunched in clusters, most doing their own thing.

From a quarter-final outing at the India Open, Ashmita will take home sticky notes, 5000 rankings points and the learning that at this level, second games and second chances wait for none. For Sindhu, it's a fifth India Open semifinal as a title on a platter beckons.