What does it take to create one of Indian badminton's rising stars in Kerala, a state that has little history of the sport? It took a homemade mud court made for volleyball, a PE teacher's tutelage, a coach's intervention and good old-fashioned teen spirit to lead Treesa Jolly from Cherupuzha village in the state's far north to badminton success.
Treesa and Gayatri Gopichand, in their first year as a doubles pair on the BWF tour, won a Super 100 title in Odisha, reached the semifinals of the All England Championship, won two medals at the Commonwealth Games and are now ranked 34 in the world.
While there is a lot of buzz about Gayatri, daughter of Indian badminton great Pullela Gopichand, Treesa (19) tends to fly under the radar. But she has a fascinating story of her own.
"What works for them is that soft vs hard play. Gayatri has phenomenal touch with her wrists, Treesa is more of an old-school doubles player where most of her shots are straight but she does it with a lot of quality." Shlok Ramchandran
Her father, Jolly Mathew, a physical education teacher who was also the volleyball coach of the local girls' school team, built a court at home for them. Treesa, then five, inherited his drive for sports but badminton was seen as the easier option at her age.
"My father's monthly salary was about Rs 10,000 so we couldn't afford coaching or equipment or many tournaments," she told ESPN. "He made the court and added a tarpaulin sheet on it to play during monsoon. Badminton was an individual sport, in athletics and all you had to be selected and train somewhere."
She took to badminton easily, was runner-up at the state's U-11 competition at only 7 and went on to win various age-group championships in the next five years. "Treesa used to beat everyone, including those trained in very good academies," Mathew told ESPN. "And she was coached by just me! I didn't know Hindi or English but she took charge of everything, from travel to stay. She is hard working and determined."
At 13, they decided that she would have to move away from home to get better, even if it meant the family had to sacrifice some material comforts. She then trained with Dr. Anil Ramachandran, the sports director of the Kannur University and her improvement continued.
After a good showing at the Khelo India Youth Games, Treesa joined the Gopichand Academy in early 2020 in what she calls a life-changing event. "I moved to doubles full time then and around that time Gayatri was also moving to doubles. The coaches then decided to pair us and it's been very good since," she said on the sidelines of an event organised by GoSports, who are now one of her main backers.
While Treesa and Gayatri performed well at the Challenger level in 2021 with three finals, it was the back-to-back tournaments hosted in India at the start of 2022 that were the turning point. At the India Open Treesa got Covid and couldn't play but then they won the Super 100 Odisha and finished runners-up at the Syed Modi in January.
Then came the All England breakthrough in March, made all the more special because they only made it to the competition as reserves after a withdrawal. "The All England was a funny thing. We came for practice and thought that if we didn't get in, we can at least train and then shop," she laughed. But not only did they make it, they reached the semis by stunning the second seeds in three games after Olympic champions Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu withdrew mid-match.
"We played with no pressure. After the match against my idol Apriyani, we said we have to win the next because everyone would say we only got through to the quarterfinal by walkover," Treesa said, giving a glimpse of her uber-aggressive mind-set.
This aggression is apparent in her power-packed game as well, which coupled with Gayatri's deft game make them a potent partnership. "My attacking game is my biggest strength. If she makes the shuttle at the net then I can attack, if I attack she can finish. It works well. Our game is more attacking, not many rallies as is usually common in women's doubles. If we have good understanding off court then it shows in court, we have a good bond right from the academy. We are same age so it's an advantage."
Doubles badminton in India is not often given the same value as singles, something that is changing now as Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty make rapid strides in men's doubles. "Indonesian and Chinese players already select doubles when they are 13 or 14, in India everyone wants to play singles," she said.
But Treesa, on the advice of the coaches at the Gopichand Academy, was happy to choose doubles as it offered more success. It was an important call, taken early.
"Treesa Jolly is an absolute powerhouse. She is strong, has good hard hands, a big personality on court. But now that I am a coach, I don't think she has the mobility to play women's singles. She compensates with her strong smashes, drives and the aggression that a doubles often player needs," Shlok Ramchandran, former Indian doubles player and now coach, said of the smart choice. "What works for them is that soft vs hard play. Gayatri has phenomenal touch with her wrists, Treesa is more of an old-school doubles player where most of her shots are straight but she does it with a lot of quality."
There is still a long way to go still as they will face newer challenges and more prepared opponents as they become a more known quantity on the circuit. Their goal is clear - reach the 2024 Paris Olympics. "We are world No 34 now, by next year we want to try to go higher and step and step become top 10." "After Ashwini [Ponnappa] and Jwala [Gutta] there has not been a very successful women's doubles pair in India. But now we want to set an example, like how Satwik and Chirag are motivating men's doubles."