As a child, whenever Samiya Imad Farooqui would go to a mall with her family, she would always rush to the sports shop and never want to leave. Her parents Mubeena Sultana Farooqui, a homemaker, and Mohammed Imaduddin Farooqui, a businessman, thus realised very early that their younger daughter was a budding sportsperson.

In a country where sports is still struggling to be a priority for parents of young children, Mubeena and Imaduddin – whose elder daughter is studying medicine – had no issue whatsoever when, eight years ago, the six-year-old Samiya first picked up a badminton racket.

On Sunday, their trust in Samiya’s career choice bore its first fruit as the now 14-year-old won her first major international tournament – the Under-15 women’s singles title at the Badminton Asia U-17 and U-15 Junior Championships in Yangon, Myanmar.

Talent spotted early

Born and brought up in Hyderabad, one of the bastions of badminton in India, Samiya’s choice of sport should not have come as such a big surprise. Imaduddin himself played the sport at the university level before getting into the bottle manufacturing business. One of the people he played with was Pullela Gopichand, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated shuttlers and, later, coaches of the country.

Imaduddin realised very early that Samiya had a very good ball sense. “Whenever I threw a ball at her, she would catch it without any difficulty,” he said. “I realized she had a very good hand-eye coordination, so I sent her to Gopi’s academy just for fitness actually, not to become a professional player.”

However, fate had other ideas. A year after first joining the academy, Gopichand would call Imaduddin and tell him that Samiya had the potential to become a professional player and asked for her to be sent there more regularly than the one hour per day that she was going.

A year later, Gopichand would add another training session to her daily routine, which meant Samiya started going to the academy in the morning and evening. Another year later, Gopichand would tell Imaduddin that it’s time the family moved closer to the academy, as Samiya’s sessions were going to become even longer and she did not have the time to travel 15 kilometres to and fro from their Banjara Hills home two times a day.

Samiya and her father Mohammed Imaduddin Farooqui
Samiya and her father Mohammed Imaduddin Farooqui

Before Samiya moved closer to the academy, her morning training session used to start at 4 am, which meant she had to wake up at 3 am every day in order to leave their Banjara Hills home by 3.30 am. Even then, Mubeena and Imaduddin never had to take much effort in waking her up.

“She used to mostly be up before us,” said Imaduddin. “The session started at 4 am and she always wanted to be there by 3.45 am and be the one to switch on the lights at the academy.”

At the age of 12, Samiya won her first national title – the U-13 national championship. “She had won a few lot of district tournaments before that but this was her first major title,” said Imaduddin. This was also the time when Samiya was paired with Gopichand’s daughter Gayatri, who was of the same age, in doubles. However, both girls eventually aim to be full-time singles players. Currently, they even train with the seniors’ batch at the Gopichand Academy, along with the likes of PV Sindhu and K Srikanth. “Their session starts at 8 am now so it’s more relaxed,” said Imaduddin.

Natural stroke-player

Talking about her game, one of her coaches at the academy, Anil Kumar, said that Samiya loves to tire her opponent, which is exactly what she did in the Asian junior final on Sunday. “After conceding the first game, Samiya kept the rallies long and tired her opponent,” said Kumar. “She played a couple of good strokes at a crucial time. She did not leave the shuttle.” Samiya is not particularly an attacking or defensive player, Kumar added, but her strokes are sharp.

India’s chief junior coach, Sanjay Mishra, concurred, saying that Samiya is a natural stroke player. “Her half-smashes and deceptive shots are very strong,” he said. “All over the world, the game being played is – keep the shuttle, speed-power, speed-power. But if you add the Indian skill of deception to that game, we will get better results.”

Samiya and her doubles partner Gayatri Gopichand
Samiya and her doubles partner Gayatri Gopichand

Samiya’s main focus now will be to improve her accuracy, added Mishra. “We don’t want to change her game pattern, but bring more power and accuracy to it.” She also has to improve her stamina, on-court movement, speed and fitness, according to Kumar. “She is also committing a few errors off her defensive strokes so that is also something we will work on,” he said.

Every badminton player’s eventual aim is to represent their country in the Olympics and Samiya is no different. However, her parents and coaches are both keeping her grounded for there is still a long way to go. “She has to do a lot of hard work to reach there, it’s not going to come easy,” said Imaduddin.

With this title win, expectations from everyone are also bound to increase. “I keep telling her, ‘You have to work harder after you win a tournament,’” Imaduddin added. “So, now, after this win, she needs to work even harder because the expectations of people the coaches and herself have increased.”

However, a gold at the Asian championship should be a big confidence booster for her. “Going ahead, we can expect similar results in international junior tournaments.”