New badminton star from Gopichand’s academy: Rajawat combines speed with wisdom to get fast tracked

Playing in the men’s singles badminton selection ‘final’ on Wednesday, Priyanshu Rajawat was attempting to reverse a loss to Kiran George last month and, more importantly, spurred on by the immense looming shadow of the country’s brightest new star , Lakshya Sen. “There’s a lot of pressure to win big matches on the new generation when you see Lakshya Sen doing so well,” Rajawat openly admits. The 20-year-old knows the chance to play on the Thomas Cup and Asian Games team is just the first step as India now have impressive individual rivals in Kidambi Srikanth, Sen and HS Prannoy meaning Rajawat is set to aware that he might have to wait it out but be ready at short notice when summoned to play mostly the third singles. But first there was Kiran George’s efficiency in getting past the exams. Rajawat recalls how the Bangalore player’s consistent play buried him just last month in the Orissa Open Super 100 final.

Attempting to avenge this in the rematch included strict orders from Gopichand Academy trainers to ration his aggression and earn the right to squeal. “I lost to Kiran George in that final. So both the coaches and I analyzed this defeat very carefully. Thoda chillao lekin point lene ke baad hi (pump fists and scream only after you’ve taken the point) I’ve been told. Too much aggression isn’t good,” says the youngster, a fan of Virat Kohli who, like the icon, tries a few cricket strokes in weekend games.

In Wednesday’s playoffs at the Trials, Rajawat had to be patient – it was sometimes his downfall, the rushing – while Kiran made uncharacteristic mistakes on his cross-net and fell in the decider. Earlier, he botched the second loss of control of the shuttle in the 21-15, 18-21, 21-10 win as the Bangalorean leveled. Then Kiran couldn’t find his sanity as he tried to close, where Rajawat lunged at his defensive shyness and attacked when he sensed a retreat. “I spoiled the second set badly and I was like jeet gayaa, jeet gayaa (I won). Then I stopped thinking like that and said to myself that it’s only won when all 21 points have been taken. The memories of the loss of Orissa were pristine, so I had been strategically very careful.”

Rolling around with your wrist on the accelerator is an old problem for Rajawat, as he could free the clutch to pull up gears and didn’t need to brake when he was younger.

Speed, double-edged sword

Priyanshu was chosen for Gwalior Academy by Gopichand at the age of 8 precisely because the scrawny boy from Dhar in MP had luminous feet and hands. “He was very skinny but had incredible leg speed and hand speed from the net and back – almost like Srikanth,” recalled academy coach Siyadatullah of the U10 boy. “Because he was lean, strength was an issue and he had no strength, so he never won anything until he was under 16,” he adds.

Priyanshu Rajawat celebrates after a point in the PBL. (Source: PBL)

With the Srikanth comparison come Srikanth problems. Both rushed and couldn’t hold back the momentum when they hit the throttle when they were younger and barely had the leg strength to control and channel that headbutt of a certain talent. “We’re still working on his need to control speed. Because he’s aggressive, he rushes and thinks he can do anything on the pitch without being able to control shot placement,” says the coach. Crucial unnecessary mistakes and wild hitting ensue, although there has been a noticeable change in recent months.

“Gopichand, sir, would stand behind me and keep telling me to be patient. He pointed out the mistake to me very early on and asked me to start meditating because I was too impatient,” he recalls making mistakes on the pitch because he just couldn’t help it. “Going too fast is a problem. When the shuttle is fast, I’m trying to score points quickly and suddenly I’m on the net and…” He then recalls instances like the recent against Belgium’s Julien Carraggi at the Orleans Masters, when he struck without thinking much and blew the match.

Start time

He has been doing this since he was 6 and revels in his speed as he follows his older brother Kunal to training in Dhar and then Gwalior. “I tried football and I didn’t like it. But with a bat in hand, I just loved hitting the shuttle. Leaving the house at 8am was tough, but you get used to it,” he says wryly, having lived in Hyderabad for a decade now and moving on as soon as the coaches saw potential. “It was in Hyderabad that my speed, perfection of shots, accuracy, power and physical fitness started to fall into place.”

Priyanshu Rajawat plays a shot (Source: Facebook)

His father, originally from Rajasthan, ran a Xerox business while his mother was a homemaker. Kunal eventually focused on studies, and sister Taneea Rajawat is an actress. “They don’t put any pressure on me, but they’re all accomplished. I should be good too,” he says. Rajawat first came into focus with a win in the PBL. “But there were many losses. In fact, playing internationals opened my eyes to how low my level of talent was. And that I have to work a lot in order to even be at the international level,” he says confidently. The joke in the academy is “Priyanshu saadhu banne chala hai”. He becomes a monastic life at the academy, calming down a bit, losing some of his former composure because seriousness has crept in with the realization that the international level is a different beast. “Also, we lost two years to Covid when I should have moved to seniors and peaked,” he laments. An injury and return in 2016 had also taught him as it took longer to heal and took up competition time. “Mentally I had to learn to deal with it.”

Training with India’s best has also influenced him. There’s the obvious comparison to Srikanth, and he’s trying to riffle a few punches. “Yes, I like Srikanth’s half punch. But it is Sameer (Verma) bhaiyya and Gopi Sir’s game on the net that I am influenced by. Only Sameer’s reflexes and Sir’s thinking are too good to follow,” he says. There’s also Prannoy’s match aggression and Sai Praneeth’s tricky punches that the understudy tries to absorb. Rajawat wants to learn ambition from Lakshya. “Beat the best in the world”

Priyanshu Rajawat wins a point. (Source: BAI)

After staying away from home in Hyderabad and only going to malls for movies on weekends, Rajawat has now almost settled on Telugu and loves the local cuisine that is served. “Bas bachpan miss karta hoo (I miss childhood) from Dhar,” he says after leaving home at 8am. “And my mother’s daal baati.” The domestic playoff win over Kiran George was impressive because Rajawat was able to use his aggression to undermine George’s confidence in the deciding game. His smashes and quick spins from behind were eye-catching, and the young man was always a good listener, absorbing advice from those around him. “But at the Asian Games and the Thomas Cup, he will learn from Srikanth and others how to prepare for big events and how to recover and control the body in a big tournament,” says Siadatt. “I won’t know how hard it is until I get there. Haarnaa gandaa lagtaa hai. (It feels miserable to lose). I have to be prepared for the fact that it will be very tough,” he laughs.

Why focus on doubles, U-23 pays off

The Badminton Association of India’s comprehensive attempts to select rosters for the Thomas Uber Cup, CWG and Asian Games open up a detailed path for local talent to crack India’s top teams and have been transparent on key points. Instead of a one-time knockout process, this process began by identifying those worthy of consideration, with two prior ranking tournaments in Bangalore and Hyderabad.

A two-tier round-robin gave 16 internationals in each category enough opportunities to emerge from a restrictive pandemic lockdown to claim India spots while the senior generation faded out. This doesn’t guarantee India instant international success, but with 14 of the Asiad side of 20, under 23, the baton is not left dangling.

Realistically, much will depend on how well the youngsters can prepare and respond to being called out to the big games and the gust of sheer international speed of rallies, but testing has at least identified the best-equipped domestically. Another encouraging aspect is the same attention given to doubles staff as India looks to expand their repertoire into pairs games, with a bunch of teens and early 20s bringing in energy.

Leave a Comment