On Thursday evening, even as he prepared for his match against France’s Toma Junior Popov in the quarterfinals of the Thailand Open, India’s Kiran George had another issue to resolve. “Before the tournament started I had booked my return flight for Friday. Now I will have to postpone it,” he says over the phone from Bangkok.
George might be fancying his chances against Popov. In their previous meeting at the 2019 Saar Lux Open quarterfinals, George had emerged triumphant in straight games. Should the Indian win on Friday, he would enter the tournament weekend at the BWF World Tour event. And that would easily be the biggest result of his career.
Yet even if things don’t go his way, it’s fair to say – given when he had originally planned his return journey – that the 23-year-old has already performed beyond his expectations.
On Wednesday, George – ranked a lowly 59th in the world -- pulled off probably the biggest win of his career, beating China’s top men’s singles player, the former World silver medallist Shi Yuqi in straight games 21-18 22-20. On Thursday, he proved the result was no flash in the pan, beating another Chinese player Weng Hong Yang, who was coming off a runner-up finish at the Malaysia Masters last week. In this match, too, George won in straight games 21-11 21-19.
While every athlete enters a tournament with an aim to win it, George is realistic about his prospects. He had entered the Super 500 event on the back of a dismal 2-6 record in 2023, having returned from an ankle injury last year. He was low on confidence. When he arrived in Bangkok at the start of the week, he did not even check who he was up against.
“I wasn’t even looking at the main draw because I was in the qualification group. I had three matches including a very strong Korean player (2022 Korea Open winner Jeon Hyeok Jin). I wasn’t even looking past him,” George says.
Coming through qualification
George, of course, surprised himself by getting past the first hurdle of the qualifying rounds. Now he is brimming with confidence. “I got a lot of belief after beating the Korean player. Considering what I was thinking, getting through qualification wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. I had comfortable wins in this qualifying. It wasn’t tiring at all. I managed it pretty well,” he says.
Perhaps as relieved as George’s result are his coaches. “I’m very pleased for him,” says Vimal Kumar, chief coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore, where George has been training since he was 15. “The last one year he was not playing to his potential but he was training well. I am sure beating these two top Chinese players will give him that extra bit to make it to the elite ranks. It’s about time he’s done this,” says Kumar.
About time - that’s what many feel. George – the son of former national badminton champion Thomas George – was always tipped to make a mark in the sport. A highly rated junior from the same batch as Lakshya Sen, he had seemingly started transitioning well into the seniors – beating H.S. Prannoy at the Orleans Open in 2021.
Stuck in a rut
Yet as some of his compatriots seemed to find their groove, George seemed stuck in a rut. “Everyone has talked about him but has not made the mark. He has had a few good wins but has not been able to be consistent. This is especially true at the international level,” says Sagar Chopda, George’s long-time coach at the Prakash Padukone Academy.
Indeed even what seemed like a breakthrough moment – when he won the Odisha Open last year, beating Priyanshu Rajawat in the final – turned out to be a false dawn as he failed to follow up that victory with any other.
“He was still playing well in India, but he was struggling with consistency at the international level,” says Chopda. “He did play well in parts – he lost a very close three game match to Chou Tien Chen at the Taipei Open, but he wasn’t able to build on that,” says Chopda.
That lean spell was compounded by Achilles tendon injury George suffered at the Maharashtra international challenge. “It was the first serious injury I’ve picked up. I was out for two months because of it. I tried to play a tournament with that injury but i had to concede that. That was a difficult time for me,” says George.
But that break was perhaps important for George to take stock of where he stood. “He was not doing things the right way. Vimal sir had a talk with him and he understood that he had to think not of badminton but just focus on getting back to full fitness,” says Chopda.
Perhaps even more significant was a break in training at Bengaluru. At the end of the year, George and Mithun Manjunath went to Dubai to train alongside Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen. His compatriot at the Prakash Padukone Academy had done so previously and vouched for the difference it made to his game. George benefited as well.
Training with Axelsen
“That two weeks they trained with Viktor made a huge difference. The intensity at which they trained with Viktor was completely different to anything they had done before. You can try and simulate it in training but unless you have played at the level Viktor has, it doesn’t compare. When he returned from Dubai, they were completely different. They (George and Manjunath) were just much more serious and intense about training. They weren’t just responding to what I was telling them, they were themselves suggesting ideas. As a coach that’s when you know your athletes are now thinking for themselves,” Chopda says.
For all that change in mindset, the results were still not coming – something Chopda admits must have been frustrating. George had a poor start to 2023, making four first round exits in 6 tournaments. His form dipped even at the national circuit as he lost to a junior player Rithvik Sanjeevi in an all India tournament. His woes were particularly compounded a couple of weeks back when he lost in the first round of the Slovenia Open – a relatively weak event. Those results took a toll on his rankings. He spoken previously of breaking into the top 32 of the BWF rankings and while had started the season as World number 44 but dropped to World number 59 at the start of this week.
“The last few months performances haven’t been great,” admits Chopda. “He has been in the top 60 for a long time and not been able to make that jump. On the other hands, his peers going ahead in the rankings. That was tricky for us to manage as well. You don’t want to be in that place. We were really hoping he could turn it around” he says.
At the Thailand Open, that’s exactly what George has done. “His confidence was back in a big way after the win against the Korean player in qualifying. When he was done with that match, he came up to me and said, agla match bhi jitunga (I’ll win the next match as well). At that time he had Shi
Yuqi and I felt it would be a hard match, but he was very confident. Vimal told him to just enter the court boldly and grind out the match and that’s what he did,” says Chopda
That confidence was visible in his game. “He didn’t have it easy against either Shi or Hong Yang. But he is mentally prepared to play long rallies which he wasn’t doing in previous tournaments. He was having a lot of self doubt about where the shuttle would land but he’s come out of that. His strength is keeping the shuttle down. He’s been able to do that this tournament. He is approaching the net faster and playing confidently over there. He is mixing his downward shots well with his drops, deceptions and half smashes,” says Chopda.
While he’s already gone far beyond where he had expected to go, with the wind firmly in his sails, George is looking to keep pushing both at the Thailand Open and beyond. “It’s still my goal to break into the top 32 of the world. That will help me to compete in bigger tournaments like the World Tour 750 and give me a better chance at Olympics qualification,” he says.
Coaches think he can do that and more. “I genuinely see George along with Lakshya, Mithun and Priyanshu will be our main strength in singles in the coming years,” states Vimal Kumar.
But that will have to wait. For now, George just has to get a new flight ticket.
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