For Azman, sky is the limit

At 15, Aifa Azman is considered among the most promising players in the world. “I want to be World No. 1,” is her refrain.

Aifa Azman... a star at 15.   -  V. GANESAN

Aifa Azman comes across as a timid youngster who easily gets overwhelmed by tricky situations. However, her records suggest otherwise. She is already a two-time Under-15 champion at the British Junior Open, winning it for the first time as a 13-year-old in 2015. She is also the reigning Asian Under-15 champion and is considered among the most promising players in the world.

The Director of the Squash Rackets Association of Malaysia, Major S. Maniam, said: “When Aifa Azman wins, it’s because of her mental strength. When she loses, it is again because of her mental state. She has all the shots, but mental fluctuation does her in.”

On Wednesday, the opening day of the Asian Squash Championship in Chennai, the 15-year-old Malaysian was down 6-9 in the fifth and final game against 12th-seeded Indian Sachika Ingale. Aifa looked nervous, flustered and lost. And a couple of falls did her confidence no good.

Aifa feared she had twisted her ankle after falling on the forecourt and took an injury time-out. For those three minutes, she seemed to be in a world of misery; teary-eyed and on the verge of giving up. But egged on by the Malaysian contingent and after being reassured that her ankle was holding good, Aifa took to court again. Winning a point on return renewed her vigour. She moved around the court well, held on when it mattered and clinched the tie 11-7, 11-6, 7-11, 11-13, 13-11 to progress to the next round.

“I had suffered an ankle injury four months ago and thought I had sprained my ankle again. I became scared,” Aifa said.

“She (Sachika) was playing well. I became scared and nervous in the fifth game. I had won the British Junior Open in 2014 after being down 6-10 in the final game, so that gave me the confidence to pull through,” she said after taking considerable time to regain her composure following a tough win.

Aifa took to squash after following her sister Aika, who is also a professional squash player, to the courts regularly. And soon, she was winning tournaments and comparisons with Nicol David began after her second consecutive British Junior Open win in 2016. “She is everything I want to be in squash. I want to play every shot like her and I want to keep winning like her,” Aifa said.

To be a professional player, one has to be at least 15 years old, and Aifa registered the moment she could apply; there were no second thoughts about it. “I want to be World No. 1 and the sooner I become a professional, the better it is for me,” she explained.

Major Maniam, former India coach and now in charge of the Malaysian team, is of the view that Aifa can be among the World’s best. But he confided that she is a work in progress. “The world’s best players are there in that position because they know how to play the waiting game. They play the longer rallies and are patient. She needs to learn to do that as well. The focus will be on three S’s for her — speed, strength and stamina. She has all the shots, she is a bright prospect,” Major Maniam said.

Squash is not an Olympic sport, yet. And as such, surviving as a professional in squash is unrewarding unless you are the very best. When prodded again about her decision to take up squash as a career at such a young age, pat came Aifa’s reply: “I want to be World No. 1.”

With such conviction, Aifa Azman can reach for the skies. She is a star, after all.