September has been an action-filled month for 17-year-old Indian badminton player Anupama Upadhyaya. Incidentally, it has also been a happening month for other Indians in the singles segment at the junior level.
Anupama Upadhyaya and Tasnim Mir both have reached world number one in the BWF World Junior Rankings in women's singles. In fact, four Indians are in the top-10 list.
On September 7, Anupama pipped Tasnim to the number 1 ranking. On September 27, Tasnim grabbed her number 1 spot back from Anupama. Unnati Hooda has moved up four places to be ranked 5th, and Anwesha Gowda is ranked 7th.
The presence of four young Indian singles players in the top-10 of BWF World Junior Rankings offers a good takeoff point for talk around one simple question: who after Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu?
For Anupama, this is the "most important stage" of her career. When she got to the number 1 ranking, she became only the second Indian woman after Tasnim to reach top spot in junior women's singles.
Her father, Naveen, puts the feat in perspective. "The ranking is a symbolic achievement. It will serve as a stepping stone and motivation for much bigger things".
Anupama’s badminton journey started in 2014 during a summer vacation to Almora, a picturesque hill station in Uttarakhand. Anupama, then nine years old, would walk down the hill to the Sunder Lal Bahuguna Indoor Badminton Stadium.
The four-court badminton hall, with a football ground nearby, is the same place where Lakshya Sen — now, India’s number 1 ranked men’s player — had taken baby steps in badminton a decade ago under the close observation of his father DK Sen, a Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach.
In 2014, another father showed the same zeal for the sport.
It was Naveen's dream to see Anupama pursue badminton as a career. Incidentally, Naveen was once a skilled cricketer. His career as a left-arm pacer, however, ended prematurely. His father concealed a letter that would have taken him to MRF Pace Foundation.
Naveen doesn’t dwell on what did not happen for him, but on Anupama, he says, “I believe physical exercise is as important as studies. I sent her to the training camp.”
Anupama vividly recalls those first few days of badminton training in Almora, her ancestral home. "During the summer vacation, my brother told me a sports training camp was underway. My father insisted I go there. I did not know anything about badminton then, except the name of Saina Nehwal. I joined the camp. After the camp ended a week later, I was asked to join the academy."
Incidentally, it was Lakshya's father who played a pivotal role in this. Naveen says, "During the training, coach DK Sen told me to let Anupama join the academy as a regular trainee. I saw this as an opportunity to fulfill my dream."
Remembering the moment, coach Sen says, "When Anupama came to the academy, what I noticed was her father's interest. It made my job easier. A dedicated parent meant the child would be serious about the sport. Naveen woke her up at 4am and brought her to the academy. Anupama is a badminton player because of him.
"She was a lanky girl, not physically strong. Badminton is a game of physical strength and skills. She was so feeble that many people questioned her father's decision to let her play the sport. Over time, her game has improved a lot," said coach Sen.
Anupama trained under coach Sen till the end of 2017, before moving to Panchkula, Haryana, to train under coach Rohit Mandana at Tau Devi Lal Badminton Academy.
"I trained in Haryana for one-and-a-half years and represented the state in the national events and did well. That got my name attached to Haryana," says Anupama, who did her schooling in Delhi.
The Panchkula training stint ended at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Tournaments were called off, and suddenly there was a down time. This helped Anupama to work on her game behind the scenes, away from the competitive circuit.
Coach Sen, who is now attached to the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, arranged a trial for Anupama at the famed facility, where his son also trains, in 2018.
Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar saw enough in her to offer her a monthly scholarship of Rs 15,000. Around the same time, Yonex signed Anupama and has since provided her with shoes, rackets, shorts, T-shirts, and a scholarship of Rs 100,000 per annum.
With improved performances on the domestic circuit, more sponsorships have come her way. Since 2018, the Long-Term Athlete Development, a scheme by Khelo India, has been paying Anupama's fees to the academy while giving her Rs 10,000 per month.
In March 2021, when Anupama won the battle of teenagers with Unnati at the India International Challenge final, Olympic Gold Quest came forward with support worth Rs 1,50,000 per annum to help her with travel expenses.
Anupama finds positives in the competition with Tasnim, Unnati, and Anwesha. "Tasnim Mir and I are almost of the same age. Unnati and Anwesha are younger than us. They are talented and I have had good competition with them. It helps me raise my level. I always try to stay a step ahead of my opponents," she says.
Anupama, who moved to Bangalore in January 2021, will head to the BWF Junior World Championships in Spain in October. She intends this to be her last international tournament as a junior.
"My target is to participate in the 2024 Olympics. I hope I qualify for the Games. My current world ranking in the seniors is 55. My target is to bring it down to 40 after the end of this year," says Anupama, who has won two senior-level tournaments, including the Poland International Challenge in March.
Focus on game development
Anupama, who made a first-round exit at the recent Chhattisgarh International Challenge and Vietnam Open, is focused on improving her game. She wants to add the deceptive quality of Tai Tzu Ying to her game and gain fitness like tennis great Novak Djokovic.
"I have to focus on my shuttle speed. Vimal Kumar, the head of coaches (at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy), tells me if I have to beat international shuttlers, I have to improve my shuttle speed. I am also focusing on strength. I have a lot to improve," says Anupama.
Coach Sen agrees. "At the senior level, shuttlers are very fit and strong. I think she has enough time to make herself stronger," he says.
Despite Anupama's steady progress, Naveen, who gave up his job with Delhi Police in 2021 to be with his daughter in Bengaluru, is wary of her transition to the senior level. Many talented youngsters have failed to bridge the gap.
"Anupama has potential, but then that potential has to be harnessed. You can't achieve success overnight. She has done well in juniors, but has had a modest start as a senior. There is work to be done,” says Naveen.