When Mithun Manjunath threw his racquet skyward after beating former World Champion Loh Kean Yew in the first round of the Australian Open on Wednesday, it’s fair to say the reaction was as much in relief of putting the match away as much as getting a win over the former world champion.
Just a few minutes before, even with a match point in hand, he admits he was feeling an unpleasant sense of deja vu in Sydney.
Although he was up by a game and leading 20-19 in the second, the 25-year-old Indian had been far better placed. He was leading 16-8 and then 20-13 before Yew clawed his way back to within a point of him.
It took Mithun back to just a week ago when he had been up by a game and was leading 18-11 against China’s Weng Hong Yang – within touching distance of first round win at the World Tour 750 Japan Open.
As he grew anxious to close out the match, Hong Yang piled on the pressure and chipped away the lead, eventually winning the second game and then taking the third.
Vimal Kumar opines
“He messed it up against Weng Hong Yang,” was the blunt assessment of Vimal Kumar, chief coach at the Prakash Padukone academy in Bangalore where Mithun trains. “These are matches you should convert. I was very disappointed when he didn’t,” the former national coach says.
That loss against Hong Yang last week had been emblematic of Mithun’s performance at the international level this year. There was no doubt about his potential. Born and raised in Bangalore, he has been marked as someone to watch out for since his early days in the age group circuit.
He is reckoned by many to have one of the most deceptive styles of play in India, capable of wrong-footing his opponents with myriad trick shots. He’s the reigning national champion.
His win over Kidambi Srikanth in the semifinals of the national championships was his second over the former World No. 1 - he’d beaten him at the Taiwan Open last year as well. This year he also impressed at the selection trials for the Asian Games and will be part of the team event in Hangzhou.
The results came with their own challenges. “The expectations on me only grew a lot when I beat Srikanth and won the national title. I try not to think about this because there is enough pressure on you as it is,” he says.
The international professional scene was proving harder to crack though as a dismal 5-12 win-loss record for the season and a middling world rank of 50 would suggest.
This wasn’t to say the Mithun wasn’t coming close. He’d taken 2022 World silver medallist Kunlavut Vitidsarn to three games at the Thailand Open. He’d led 2022 World bronze medallist Chou Tien Chen 9-2 in the opener and pushed him to three games before losing in the Taiwan Open. He’d taken Yew himself to 3 games at the German Open.
“After the defeat to Yew in Germany, I’d spoken to Mithun,” says Vimal Kumar. “He had told me he felt he was playing at the same level as these top players. He mentioned that he felt capable of beating them. I also told him I felt that. He had a little to improve on his muscle endurance in long matches but he was matching them when it came to skill and strokeplay. It’s just at the end when the best players really push themselves where he was falling short. That’s something he had to learn,” he added.
After the loss from a dominant position to Hong Yang in Japan last week, it had seemed that Mithun was far from learning that lesson. Indeed as Yew pulled himself back into contention in Sydney on Wednesday, Mithun says he couldn’t stop his mind from reliving that earlier defeat.
“I was trying not to think about it (the match in Japan Open) but as Loh Kean Yew kept winning points I started thinking what am I supposed to do – how can I get this one point. When he got to 19-20, I was becoming a little desperate,” he admits.
With each lost point he kept turning to his corner where coach Sagar Chopda was sitting for advice. “Mithun is someone who gets anxious a lot. He needs to find ways to control it. When he was struggling he kept turning to Sagar for advice. He wanted those magic words that would help him win. But no coach can do that. Ultimately you need to deal with these things on your own,” says Vimal.
‘I just played instinctively’
That’s eventually what Mithun did. “I decided I wouldn’t make any silly mistakes. I just thought, let me keep the rally as long as possible and not give him (Loh Kean Yew) an easy shot to dribble at the net,” Mithun says.
Mithun says he doesn’t really know what happened next. “When I stopped overthinking what I had to do, I just played what occurred naturally to me. I am not even sure what shot I played. I just played instinctively,” he says.
What Mithun did was play a solid net shot to lure Yew forward. Then, while shaping to play a backhand shot to Yew’s forehand corner, he flicked his wrist at the last moment to send the shuttle to Yew’s backhand corner. It’s the kind of trick shot that Mithun has a reputation for on the national and international circuits but one he had shelved for the most part against Yew.
When he needed it most, that stroke came to his rescue. A wrong-footed Yew scrambled to make the backhand clear but was unable to control the shot which went wide.
The victory, only the third ever for Mithun in the main draw of a World Tour 500 tournament, is significant in more ways than one.
“It’s a major confidence booster. This is the first year I’ve been playing regularly at the World tour 500 level and beyond. Until last year I was mostly playing at the International challenge level, World Tour 100 and World Tour 300 level (the three lowest rungs on the BWF calendar). That was something I was comfortable doing. The level at the highest level is very different from that.
“You are playing the best players in conditions that can be very tricky. I just couldn’t figure it out until now. Mentally you have to be strong and believe in yourself. It’s about believing you can beat these top players. It’s taken me time to become mentally strong. In the challengers I’m good but I’m not there at the top level just yet,” he says.
His coaches hope that the win against Yew might be the sign that Mithun can turn the corner. There will be harder matches to come - he will play against 2021 All England Champion Lee Zii Jia in the next round of the Australian Open. Mithun and his coaches believe that these are the sort of matches he needs to play regularly.
“You need to play guys like Loh Kean Yew and Lee Ziia if you want to test yourself. Mithun is a much better player than what his record shows. I’ve always believed Mithun alongside Priyanshu Rawat and Kiran George are the players who will really make a mark in Indian men’s singles in the years to come. Mithun particularly is one player who is capable enough to match any of the top players on his day. Wins like the one he got today will give him that confidence that he belongs there with them,” says Vimal.
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