For Sreeja Akula, solace was found in the badminton hall at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. In a week’s time, she and Achanta Sharath Kamal would become the first Indian paddlers to win gold in the mixed doubles event in the history of the Commonwealth Games. But she couldn’t have known that then. It was a day to rest and reset.
A day earlier, on July 30, Akula remained undefeated in her singles tie, but was a part of the Indian women’s team – the defending champions – that lost out in the quarterfinal of the team table tennis event at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. There was disappointment for a few hours, but she decided to take a day off to regroup before the individual events.
A day later, on her 24th birthday, she spent the afternoon enjoying a meal with her coach and then cut a butterscotch birthday cake her teammates organised for her. The rest of the evening was all about watching badminton. No table tennis whatsoever.
“This is my first Commonwealth Games and I had never really met any other athlete from any other sport,” she told Scroll.in. “I met PV Sindhu and I got to see some of the badminton matches. I’ve always admired our players, but now I got to watch them from close quarters. It was just a good day to get my mind off everything and reset.”
And that was important. It helped her for the mixed doubles campaign to follow... yet that too didn’t come without its own bit of suspense, a fair share of ups and downs.
A few hours before the final, Akula was vying for the bronze medal in women’s singles but fell agonizingly short, losing her best-of-seven match 3-4 to Australia’s Yangzi Liu. That came after another 3-4 defeat the previous day against eventual champion Tianwei Feng. Two marathon matches, two heartbreaking defeats and the tears soon followed.
She recalled being inconsolable in the locker room after leaving the court. She was being comforted by her coach Somnath Ghosh and mental trainer Gayatri Vartak when her mixed doubles partner Sharath Kamal showed up.
“I was crying a lot. A little while later Sharath bhaiya came to the dressing room. He said ‘it’s ok, we have another match later and we can win the gold medal. Let’s cry after that,’” she recalled the conversation.
That’s when the mood lightened and the focus returned.
They were coming up against a tricky Malaysian pair: The hard-hitting Javen Choong and the tricky but aggressive southpaw Karen Lyne – a 19-year-old who played a crucial role in knocking the Indians out from the women’s team event.
But there was an air of confidence around the Indian pair in that final.
“The only thing I was thinking of was to not get scared and play some good quality shots so that Sharath can take care of the next ball. It was just to play the shot without trying to be safe, that’s what he kept telling me. Just go for my shots,” Akula said.
“I had lost a very good match a while back. So, I had this thought that I have nothing to lose, I already have a medal in my hand. Now I just need to play freely. I remember I just played all out in that gold medal match.”
The Indians would come up with a 3-1 win to take the title.
It’s been an exciting and impressive season so far for the youngster from Hyderabad. She was ranked around the 150-mark at the end of last season but has already climbed to 77 in the world – she’s aiming to break into the Top 50 this year. And she’s only just started to build the confidence needed to rise up the order.
In June she won the Senior National Championships for the first time which, mentally, kept her in good stead for Birmingham 2022.
“I was confident after the Nationals. Even at the Commonwealth Games which was my first multi-sport event, I felt nice and confident. I wanted to just give it my best. I wanted to win gold, but main thing is I wanted to try and play without pressure,” she said.
Freely, she clobbered her forehands and pushed back the returns on the backhand side deep into angles. And on many occasions throughout the Games, let alone the final, she had been the one doing the heavy lifting to provide Sharath – who had been raking up the miles after getting to the final in the men’s team, men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles events – some respite.
The mixed doubles title was the only one the veteran paddler had never won before. Now Sreeja Akula was next to him as they became the first Indians to claim that crown... an accolade she had not quite envisioned all those years ago, when she first started playing the sport as an eight-year-old.
Her elder sister Ravali had first started training and Akula followed soon enough with the hopes to replicate her sibling’s state-level trophies.
Ravali would eventually quit the sport to pursue a degree in engineering, but she and her parents ensured that Akula would continue.
“There was a bit of a dilemma for me too. I scored 96 percent in the 12th and I was the college topper. My parents weren’t sure if I should continue the studies or continue with sports. But at 18 I got a job at the RBI in their sports quota, so that gave us some confidence and security,” she added.
Yet all that seems to have happened an age ago for her.
That glittering gold medal has become her new reality. But she’s determined to make sure it won’t be the only thing that defines her. Now she’s already eyeing the Asian Games and the Paris 2024 Olympics. She’s a confidence player, building on the momentum to take her to higher places. Striking a historic gold at the Commonwealth Games is a wonderful start.