Anmol Kharb: The teen prodigy who scripted history by guiding India to its first Asian Team Championships title

India was level 2-2 against Thailand in the final before Anmol demolished World Number 45 Pornpicha Choeikeewong 21–14, prompting national coach Pullela Gopi Chandto wrap her in a bear hug and her teammates to hold her aloft amidst cheers.

Published : Feb 18, 2024 12:53 IST - 5 MINS READ

Anmol Kharb in action. (File Phot)
Anmol Kharb in action. (File Phot) | Photo Credit: THE HINDU

Anmol Kharb in action. (File Phot) | Photo Credit: THE HINDU

He would have hardly known it, but in 2017, when Devender Kharab and a group of his neighbours got together to build a cement badminton court at their residential complex in Sector 16 Faridabad, he was putting together the first step in a sequence of events that would eventually see his 17-year-old daughter Anmol guide India to their first Asian Team Championships title.

Badminton Asia Team Championships: Sindhu, Anmol, Treesa-Gayatri star as India lifts maiden title

India was level 2-2 against Thailand in the final before Anmol demolished World Number 45 Pornpicha Choeikeewong, prompting national coach Pullela Gopi Chand to wrap her in a bear hug and her teammates to hold her aloft amidst cheers.

Anmol is brave and intelligent: Gopi Chand

The win was Anmol’s third consecutive one over a far higher-ranked opponent at the Asian Championships – she had earlier beaten China’s World number 149, Wu Luo Yu, 22-20, 14-21, and 21-18in the group stage, and then sealed India’s win in the semifinal over Japan by beating World number 29 Natsuki Nidaira. Both wins would be the decisive victories in the respective tie.

Gopi Chand would lavish praise on the youngest and, at World Number 472, the lowest-ranked member of the Indian team.

“To take the pressure on and show that kind of nerve, it is very refreshing. She is fearless. The kind of strokes that she plays, come naturally to her. She is reading the game well, you can see her intelligence. She played beautifully,” Gopi Chand would say.

Indeed, as she effortlessly matched older and higher-ranked opponents and as comparisons were made to illustrious predecessors like statemate Saina Nehwal, it certainly seemed that this elite level of badminton was right where the 17-year-old belonged. Badminton, though, came to Kharb just by chance.

While the court was meant for his son, it was Anmol, then just 10 who took a fascination for the sport. “She was really small but she wouldn’t let anyone else play on the court until she first got a game. And at that age we all indulged her,” recalls Devender.

He soon realised, though, that Anmol’s interest in the sport wasn’t a passing one. “There’s a saying in Hindi - Pooth ke paon palne me dikhaye. (A person’s future can be determined by their present actions) I looked around for coaching classes to put her in. There might have been a hundred kids along with her, but her first coach told her after a few sessions that she would go further than all of them,” recalls Devender.

It wasn’t obvious right away, in terms of results, that Anmol would go as far as she did. At her first state championships, she got to the finals but she lost in the quarterfinals of her first U-13 nationals the same year. The next year, she lost at the U-15 nationals to the then Indian number 1 Samayra Pawar.

These were not results that worried either her or her father. “At that time she was really very small. She was competing against girls who were two years older than her. But despite losing, she never got disheartened. I’d always see her smiling. She’d make friends and get along with girls from all the other states. After a tournament, I’d be looking to take her home, and I’d find her chatting with some opponent or another,” he says.

Anmol would get her breakthrough season towards the end of 2021 when she finally became the U-15 champion. “That was when she actually started hitting her growing years. She was always very quick, but now she was finally able to reach shuttles that she otherwise wasn’t able to,” says Devender.

It was right about then that Anmol started getting serious about her training. “Although she was very good in her studies, she decided to take a non science stream. She also shifted her training centre,” says Devender.

Anmol now trains in Noida under coach Kusum Singh, once a contemporary of Saina Nehwal. Her mother, Rajbala, makes the three-hour round trip with her every day from her home in Faridabad. Her training, though, isn’t restricted solely to badminton training.

“We are from Haryana so we have some traditional ways of preparing her. She drinks a lot of milk and eats halwa and bajra roti for strength. But we also have some methods that people can say are different. Every day in the morning, Anmol wakes up at 5 am and heads to a park where a former international boxer takes a physical training class. She’s one of about 40 kids but she’s the only badminton player. The idea was her mother’s because she felt Anmol needed to have that kind of power in her game,” says Devender.

It’s unusual, but there’s no doubt it’s worked. If her coach once competed against Nehwal, Anmol, who idolises her fellow state-mate, emulated her feat by winning the national championships last year.

The national title, though, would be small fry compared to the Asian title she helped seal for India. While it’s a historic achievement, father Devender, who’s travelled to Malaysia, where he watched from the stands, says he doesn’t expect Anmol to change much.

“She’s always been a very happy go lucky girl. She’s always pulling pranks. Like when she comes back from her training, she will come from the back gate and then hug me from behind just to scare me. Even when she wins a match or a tournament, she’ll expect a reward like a meal from a restaurant. But in particular she will demand chocolate ice cream. Because that is something she’s not allowed to eat generally,” he says.

With historic Asian team gold around her neck, Anmol’s bargaining from a strong position this time around, though. “You can’t really say no after a win like this,” Devender says.

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