He might have won a silver medal at the World Junior Badminton Championships but India’s Sankar Muthusamy says the tournament was not high on his list of priorities when he started the season.
With the prestigious junior event cancelled twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not exactly at the top of his mind but the 18-year-old Tamil Nadu shuttler stood on the podium on Sunday.
“Initially, I was not thinking about the World Championships because it didn’t happen for two years, and I was not sure whether it will be held or not. I was busy with my senior events,” Sankar, who became the world junior number one in August, told PTI from Santander, Spain.
“When the selection trials happened, I participated and I thought I would try to do something special when I made it to the team. But I didn’t train particularly for the event. Last five weeks, I have been busy with senior events but I am glad I could end my junior days with a world championship medal.”
In the past week, the Chennai player, who has been a national champion at U-13, U-15, U-17 and U-19 levels, gave an ample display of his prowess as he dismantled some of the toughest players in the junior circuit before signing off as second best following his loss to Chinese Taipei’s Kuo Kuan Lin in the final.
For Sankar, it all started when his father put him in sports. Initially, he played tennis for a few months but then during summer vacation, he picked up badminton. Soon, he was training at Fireball Academy in Chennai’s Annanagar, under Aravindan Samiappan, who is his long-time coach.
Sankar’s father Subramanian encouraged him to drop out of the schooling system at an early age and pushed him to play in the upper age groups and senior circuits.
“My father has taken some bold decisions, one of which was leaving conventional schooling and going full time in sports. Now it might seem normal but 7-8 years back when I was in class 8, he took this decision, it was much ahead of its time,” says Sankar.
“The other thing is, I have been playing in the senior circuit for the last 3 years. I have started performing well in seniors, now I am ranked 110.”
“I played with some experienced players and being in the senior circuit has helped me improve my game. It is one of the reasons why I could do well here,” added the 2022 Iran Junior International champion.
Playing in the higher age group in the national ranking tournaments meant Sankar started dealing with the losses much better.
“Right from U-13, he used to play the senior players. He naturally couldn’t win all the upper-age matches, but he wasn’t dejected. He was ready to learn and it helped him,” says his sister Lakshmi Priyanka, a mixed doubles player.
For Sankar, badminton has always been an obsession. When he is not training, he likes watching videos of legends such as Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei and analysing their game.
“He is a training freak. He likes to be on the court all the time. Throughout the day he keeps thinking and analysing the game. After a point, we get worn out but he would go on,” says Lakshmi, who is currently nursing an eye injury.
“Sometimes my Dad and coaches tell him to take time off but he doesn’t like that, he feels restless outside the court.”
Lakshmi recalls how during the COVID-enforced lockdown, Sankar would do wall practice for 4-5 hours in a small room which didn’t have any Air conditioners or fans.
“It was suffocating just to see him do that day and day out,” she said.
Since he had quit school quite early, Sankar never really had the opportunity to make friends. It is his dad, who remains his confidant.
During his under-10 days, Sankar would break into a puddle of tears every time he trails in a match and it took a lot of counselling from his dad to cultivate equanimity in both wins and losses.
“He used to play with full aggression, but he would cry and play. My dad counselled him and gradually it stopped,” Lakshmi said.
Every sportsperson’s journey is plagued with obstacles but Sankar’s dad ensured that finance is never a constraint when it comes to pursuing badminton.
“My dad sold as many as 3-4 houses and took loans to fuel our badminton careers. Even now we have huge debts and we hope it gets somewhat sorted after this medal,” the 21-year-old said.
Knowing his son’s obsession with the sport, Subramanian, who was a Port Trust employee, also build a badminton court on the terrace of their house after he took VRS to be with his son. Later, Subramanian sold the house.
Sankar, who is taking his first steps in the world of elite badminton, seemed very assured of his game.
“I know I have a very good defence, but I’m improving my attack. I have to keep learning in all aspects,” he said.
“I was outside 200 at the start of the year but now I’m almost in the top 100. I also became world junior no. 1 and had some podium finishes. So I hope to get into the top 50 to 75 next.
“In senior tours, I played till Super 300, so now I just want to play Super 500, 750 and 1000s, just want to keep improving my ranking.”