Who next after Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu? Malvika Bansod would like to step up

As Malvika steps out in the Malaysia Masters qualifier on Tuesday, she strives for a top-32 spot in the BWF rankings to ease her financial burdens and stake claim for bigger prospects in Indian badminton.

Sudipta Biswas
At 20, Malvika Bansod is already the third-highest ranked Indian woman singles player, behind PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal.

The question is fairly straightforward. Who next after Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu? Fans used to the stellar performances of the two badminton stars are greedy for more. Sindhu, 26, is going strong, while Saina, 32, is mounting a comeback.

Among the few names that pop up as the ones to watch, one is from Nagpur. India’s orange city has given badminton Malvika Bansod. The 20-year-old singles specialist hit the circuit only in 2019, and has managed to make a few waves — the biggest of them is beating Saina. Malvika is the only Indian after Sindhu to beat Saina.

Malvika is at 48 in World Badminton Federation (BWF) rankings, behind Sindhu and Saina.

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Beating Saina at the 2022 India Open in January got Malvika noticed, but the journey up to that point and since has not been smooth.

In June, at the Italian International Challenge, Malvika won silver after playing three successive matches within 24 hours. At this tournament, she also had to deal with lack of match practice with the Yonex’s AS-50 shuttle used in the BWF World Tour and the absence of her coach. Malvika often does not have access to AS-50 shuttles in India.

The experience was draining and handed her a reality check. “Before the (Italian International Challenge) final, I was so tired, I couldn’t play the match well. I had to play three matches in 24 hours and all went to three games. So nine games in one day, including the final without any match practice with the AS-50 shuttle. My body was not moving. My father was there doing everything for me, but I missed my coach. As I did not have enough funds, my coach and physio could not travel with me,” says Malvika.

While challenges have come aplenty in her young career, Malvika has had Agatha Christie’s extolled detective novels for company. The English writer’s fan has also found solace in drawing and painting. She also draws inspiration from boxing legend Mary Kom’s resilience, and that has perhaps helped her battle on in the absence of a prim path.

Late Bloomer

It comes as a bit of surprise that Malvika’s transition from her sub-junior debut at 13 to the international stage at 17 took as long as it did. In contrast, Sindhu reached the top tier when she was 14.

Malvika picked up the racquet when she was eight, under the watchful eye of her grandfather Dipak Bansod, a former university-level player. Her love for the game in the backyard of their Shivaji Nagar house encouraged her parents, Prabodh and Trupti, to enrol her in the nearby Subhedar Hall, where Priya Deshpande was the coach. Malvika learnt the basics of the game from her.

Malvika dominated age-group badminton in the country. On her sub-junior circuit debut, she won the Maharashtra U-13 title. Between 2016-19, she racked up two national school championship golds, four successive U-17, and two consecutive U-19 junior state championship titles. She also bagged the Asian School Championship and South Asian U-21 regional titles.

Malvika further set the circuit ablaze by winning the Maldives International Future Series on debut in 2019 and earned the Nepal International Series the next week.

Despite her early success, Malvika’s parents never realised she would choose a career in the sport.

“When she was eight, we never thought she would take up badminton. We wanted her to play so that she has a perfect balance of strong physical and mental attributes. And then we thought let’s see how far she goes. As she started showing results in age-group competitions at both district and state levels, we decided when she was 14, she should pursue badminton as she is managing herself well in all aspects of life. We decided we should help her with everything to pursue it as a profession,” Trupti tells Sportstar.

Topsy-turvy journey and a mother that gave it all

Despite hailing from a region that boasts a solid badminton culture with more than 50 coaches nurturing talent in several academies, Malvika decided to leave Nagpur.

“She (Deshpande) had the biggest influence on Malvika at that point. But as the place lacked professionalism, we had to look for better facilities. There was also no full-time coach available in Nagpur who could devote themselves completely to training her. We were almost compelled to quit badminton,” says Trupti. “We didn’t know how to go about it. We didn’t have anybody who could guide us. At that time junior international tournaments were out of our reach. We didn’t have the fund to take her abroad for international exposure.”

Trupti left her career as a dentist so that her daughter could chase her dream. Trupti and Malvika, then 16, set out for Raipur where the teen joined junior Indian team coach Sanjay Mishra’s ITM Badminton Academy. Prabodh, also a dentist, stayed back to run their Nagpur clinic. “In 2017, Malvika created history in Maharashtra by becoming a champion in two divisions. She was playing in Karad in the state tournament where she became the U-17 and U-19 champion in a single tournament. Three months later, she won the U-17 and U-19 tournaments in Nagpur. It was then we decided to go to Raipur for better training,” says Trupti.

Did thoughts of a move to the famous badminton cradles of Hyderabad and Bengaluru pop up?

“We have never tried to go there. Sanjay Mishra is a good coach and Malvika has been making great progress under him. We chose Raipur because of its proximity to Nagpur. I don’t think not being part of [Pullela] Gopichand or [Prakash] Padukone’s academy blocked sponsors coming her way,” Trupti says.

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However, regular coaching was a distant dream since Trupti insisted on Malvika’s schooling back in Nagpur. It was only after her intermediate in 2020, that Malvika sought regular coaching in Raipur.

For Malvika, however, joining the academy even as a seasonal trainee helped her improve under Mishra’s eye. A touch player since the formative days, the southpaw began work to cover other bases. Mishra acknowledges the potential. “Malvika is a talented girl and has been performing well. But she needs to work on her speed and is not quick enough at the moment. She also has to work on her jump smashes and has to be aggressive on the court. But she is a very fast learner, sincere and disciplined. Always willing to learn,” he says.

Malvika’s performances have come amid the balancing act. In 2019, she won her maiden national titles - All India Senior Nationals gold (team championship) in Guwahati and All India Senior Ranking tournament before repeating the feat in 2021.

Better days

Her performances at home had Arun Lakhani, the Maharashtra Badminton Association president, come forward to get her a sponsorship from Vishvaraj Infrastructure, a Nagpur-based water utility company. The deal helped Malvika graduate to the BWF tournaments to make her international debut in September 2019 in the Maldives International Future Series, where she became the first Indian after Sindhu to win the title since 2011. From the sidelines, Trupti watched her daughter soar.

Promising results followed. A dream debut season was an indicator of what was to come and Go Sports Foundation started backing her.

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The Saina, Sindhu showdown

When badminton action resumed after COVID-19 downtime, Malvika revelled in moments she had long been waiting for - facing Saina and Sindhu.

For Malvika, playing Saina and Sindhu was surreal. She had grown up watching them on television. A week after beating Saina, she went up against Sindhu in the final of the Syed Modi International in Lucknow. She lost to the two-time Olympic medallist Sindhu in straight games, but absorbed the lesson.

Malvika recalls those battles with zest. “It was very exciting. After I beat Saina, she congratulated me and told me, ‘You can do very well in the future.’ It didn’t sink in that day. It took a while to realise that I had beaten her. It was a big achievement (laughs),” says Malvika.

“Playing Sindhu next at this level for me was a blessing as I got to play against a top-10 ranked player. After playing against both of them, I got to know what I needed to work upon.”

Malvika had a strong run in the Odisha Open, where she beat Tasnim Mir and Tanya Hemanth before going down to Unnati Hooda in a closely-fought final.

‘Not easy, not yet’

Malavika has since shot up to a world ranking of 48 from 111 in just six months.

However, being an independent player with a couple of sponsors means Malvika is left to bear all expenses by herself while playing abroad. It leaves her to do all chores alone - from washing clothes to game prep. She records her performances on camera and evaluates them on her own to prepare for tournaments.

“The training is going on well but playing international events has become a headache as I lack funds to play regularly. Also, the absence of my coach during tournaments means I often lose matches from a winning situation. Sometimes, if I pick up a niggle, I am afraid. It could have been avoided if the physio was with me. For 15 tournaments, it’s a big amount that I’d have to bear myself. To take off from here, I need more funds. Everything gets stuck there,” Malvika says.

Since her senior debut in 2019, she has managed to only participate in 28 tournaments due to financial constraints, which is way below the standard for a rising player across the globe.

Being ranked outside the Top-32 does not help her case. The ranking points she earned by playing in the International Series and Challenger, both Level-3 events, are negligible. She has featured in only six BWF World Tour events - all in 2022.

Support from the Badminton Association of India (BAI) has not been easy to come by. Talking about sponsorships, her coach Mishra who is also the BAI general secretary, says, “It is a problem for her and many youngsters of her batch. I believe as soon as she enters the top-40 in the world rankings, sponsorships will come.”

Malvika with her coach Sanjay Mishra after beating Saina Nehwal at the 2022 India Open.
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While the sponsorship process hinges on the list charted by BAI, it is the Sports Authority of India (SAI) that reimburses all costs. “To support and prepare the next-gen players after Sindhu and Saina, BAI has created three groups - A, B, and C, based on their performances in domestic and international tournaments. C is the group for the upcoming players. In this group, all the young players including Malvika are there. SAI has started to bear the expenses of a few of their international tournaments in a calendar year,” says Mishra.

However, SAI has not cleared Malvika’s dues since February. Consequently, her parents had to pay to help her participate in the German Open and All England Open Badminton Championships qualifier.

Trupti doesn’t hold back on this count. “We say Saina won Super Series and Sindhu won an Olympic medal before turning 20. It was possible because they got the backing of sponsors when they were 14. We need the same kind of support. Where are they now?”

Malvika now shuttles between her Computer Science course at SRM University in Chennai and a pivotal phase in her career. Crossing the Olympic qualification buffer is on top her list, but she is in no rush.

As she steps out in the Malaysia Masters qualifier in July, chasing a top-32 ranking, Malvika insists consistency will be key in the days ahead.