On her way home to Durg, Chhattisgarh, after a busy week in the state capital, shuttle player Aakarshi Kashyap reflected on the small sacrifices she has made, the hours of hard work she has put in week after week to improve her game to enhance. It was a day well worth doing all of that as with seven wins from seven matches she played at the 2022 Badminton Association of India Selection Trials, she reaffirmed her status as the top aspiring singles player in the country.
It is not a coat to be taken lightly given India’s rich recent history in the world of badminton in this category. But the world’s third-highest ranking Indian shuttle driver now knew she had earned the right to represent her nation at high-profile events she dreamed of as a child. On Thursday, the 20-year-old was confirmed as part of India’s squad for the Uber Cup, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
India’s Badminton Squads Announce: Aakarshi Kashyap Makes the Cut for All Three Major Events
“Bahut accha lay raha hai‘ she told Scroll.in over the phone, the joy and relief in her voice. “I am humbled and feeling very grateful to God, thankful for Suchitra Badminton Academy and my mentors over the years. I will remember this day for the rest of my life because I will now get the chance to actually represent India in the big events I dreamed of as a child. And so many people will be cheering me on. It’s going to be a moment I’ve worked for my whole life.”
However, just a few months ago things were not quite going according to plan for Aakarshi. She failed in the trials to select squads for the Sudirman Cup and Uber Cup held in August last year. She has been the top Indian international for a while but circumstances haven’t worked for her. Ahead of the trials, she had to be in Delhi to settle her visa for a tournament in Mexico and then had to travel to Hyderabad for the games. She ended up losing to Riya Mookherjee and Aditi Bhatt in the early stages. She wasn’t fully prepared and it ended up costing her a place at the two big team events.
For the youngster, who had just turned 20 a few days earlier, this was of course a big disappointment.
But when her tryouts were over, she didn’t stay any longer. Her visa to Mexico was taken care of anyway, so she flew out the next day and got to Aguascalientes on the same day as her opening game for the Mexican International Challenge, jetlagged and all.
From there in the quarterfinals, the long road to salvation began with small steps. What followed was a series of international tournaments. Mexico, Netherlands, back to India, then Belgium, Germany, Bahrain, Bangladesh… all at the end of 2021 where she accumulated a lot of ranking points. Then 2022 kicked off with a semi-final run at the India Open, where she gave Thailand’s Busanan Ongbamrungphan a massive scare, followed by the quarter-finals at the Syed Modi Super 300.
Soon her ranking was high enough to compete in the Swiss Open, and she was also promoted from the reserves at the All England, a dream tournament for her.
“I am now getting the reward for my hard work. Someone could have thought about where their career was going at this point (when they missed selection last year), but I don’t want to think that way. I will never give up,” Aakarshi said.
“Winning and losing will be part of an athlete’s life, I still wanted to work hard the next day, the next day… and focus on my fundamental game, not winning and losing. I didn’t miss a single training session. On rest days I really rested. I didn’t go to malls or watch movies and stuff like that. When I was touring in Switzerland or England, I didn’t wander around in those cities. I always did my practice sessions. I uninstalled Instagram from my phone, I wasn’t active on social media. And I feel like all the hard work and small sacrifices got me this result today.”
Indeed, all that international exposure and training has now placed her just outside the world top 50 and, more importantly, established her as India’s second-choice singles player for major upcoming team events, behind only PV Sindhu.
A crucial part of Aakarshi’s rise was when she joined Suchitra Badminton Academy in October 2019. She was already doing well in the Indian domestic circuit but had a difficult time against some players. One of them was Ashmita Chaliha, the player who happened to defeat Aakarshi at the end of the Trials this week in New Delhi to decisively secure first place.
“For her to reach the next level, we just had to make a few minor changes to her game and certain aspects of her mindset,” Pradeep Raju, Aakarshi’s mentor since late 2019 and director of Suchitra Badminton Academy, which PV Sindhu has attended in the trained in recent years, told scroll.in.
“Ashmita and Gayatri (Gopichand) were two players she was struggling against at the time. It often comes down to making the athlete believe they can beat anyone. Once here, she could see the results immediately. All it took were subtle mental and physical changes that required her to get leaner and faster on the court. And also the help of video analysis of opponents, on which we focus a lot.
“The other thing that we decided when our federation was formed was a better selection of tournaments. Instead of Super 100 and up, we made them play a few international series and future series. Tournaments in Uganda and Kenya (early 2020) where she was on the podium made her believe that with hard work she could win international medals,” Raju added.
Develop yourself as a player
Aakarshi describes herself as a gamer who loves to rally and retrieve the shuttle as often as possible. First idolizing Indian legends, she also looks up to world No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying and Olympic champion Chen Yufei among the overseas stars. And now it’s exactly this kind of all-around game that she’s dying to develop further.
The Delhi trials also revealed a new aggressive side to their game. Rallies will inevitably be the basis of her game, but she also showed an eagerness to score points as quickly as possible, something Raju said they’ve been working on. And even in conditions where the drift significantly affected gameplay, she looked unbeatable.
“Each one is unique with their gameplay. If you ask Carolina Marin and PV Sindhu to play a full Rally game, they won’t last long in tournaments. If you see Nozomi Okuhara, she’s gathering a lot, she’s not the most physically intimidating shuttle but she was on top. We have to get better at an athlete’s natural game,” Raju said.
“And that’s exactly what we did with Aakarshi. Another big advantage for her was that during the Covid period and the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, she had the chance to play against Sindhu in our academy where we had league games. In a match situation, even losing, she brought Sindhu very close in two hard-fought matches. That gave her a lot of confidence. And she has regularly trained with shuttles fighting with Sindhu as well. It told her she wasn’t far behind, and that was great.”
Sitting on the other side of the net in the academy, the world No. 52 will soon be India’s No. 2 behind ‘Sindhu di’ on some major stages.
“I want to be one of the big names in badminton in our country. see me there After Sindhu maybe I can win medals for my country,” she said when asked if that was her ultimate goal. And of course she also thinks about Paris 2024.
“She’s on the right track. To go from a top 100 player to the top 50 and beyond from here, we need to work on her consistency in tournaments,” Raju said. “Dealing with the physical and mental strain of high-level events on a regular basis. I think for India she is the next best option we have after Saina Nehwal and Sindhu. The best athletes believe they can come back from any situation in their career. You can make a difference. It’s about the constant grind these athletes need to have, the constant belief that they can do it… and most importantly, working on their game accordingly.”
Aakarshi might not have the flashiest gameplay, but she does it with her courage and conviction, hard work and focus, a mature head on young shoulders, a strong desire to learn and improve every day, and a clear understanding of more than make up for their goals.
As she put it, “I want to add attack shots to my game, be more aggressive. Most importantly, as a player, I need to improve every day and that’s a lifelong process.”
From the archive: Self-trained Junior National Champion Aakarshi Kashyap has his sights set on the big league