For perhaps the first time in her life, 16-year-old Aakarshi Kashyap experienced the fishbowl-like existence of a celebrity in India. Dozens of fans were jostling around the barrier that separated them from her, wildly clicking photographs and asking for an autograph.

It didn’t matter that they weren’t taking her photo, but her opponent’s, who was standing just a couple of feet ahead of her. Saina Nehwal hardly seemed to notice the commotion, having experienced it for the better part of the last decade.

But this was new for Kashyap, who couldn’t help but giggle at the situation, before she walked on to the television court behind Nehwal for their quarter-final match at the senior national badminton championships on Monday in Nagpur. “I was very nervous but laughing at the same time at all the fuss,” she would admit later.

The badminton Nationals this year provided several such opportunities for India’s young and upcoming shuttlers the opportunity to play against some of the best in the world. Indian players ranked in the world’s top 50, such as Nehwal, PV Sindhu and K Srikanth, were handed a direct entry into the pre-quarterfinals.

Making the best of the opportunity

The decision was met with some criticism, given the direct entrants would be a lot fresher than the ones who came from the opening rounds. However, it also provided for opportunities such as the one Kashyap got. This was not the 16-year-old’s first senior Nationals – she had reached the semi-finals in the previous edition – but it was the first time she was taking on one of India’s star shuttlers.

The Chhattisgarh girl was at a disadvantage considering she had been playing continuously for the last week, including the inter-state championships prior to the Nationals. In fact, Kashyap had reached the quarter-finals after playing three back-to-back three-game matches, including one earlier on Monday.

However, the teenager was in no mood to let such an opportunity go by. “I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the court because I don’t know when I’ll get an opportunity to play Saina di next,” she would say later.

Kashyap’s resolve would allow her to take a 10-4 lead in the first game, as she made efficient use of playing on the slower side of the court because of the drift in the complex. She tossed the shuttle up while serving, knowing that the drift would not allow it to go long, and then brought Nehwal forward by using supple drop shots and ensuring that her net play was near flawless.

“I wanted to play long rallies against her and make her move a lot because she has just recovered from a knee injury [that kept her out for the latter half of 2016]. I wanted to bring her forward as much as possible, so it would be difficult for her to lift,” said the 16-year-old.

Aakarshi Kashyap wanted to spend as much time as possible on the court with Saina Nehwal (Image: Maharashtra Badminton Association)

Kashyap’s performance would have surprised not just Nehwal but also the hundreds of spectators who had gathered in the gallery above them. Shouts of “Come on, Aakarshi,” were heard every now and then, as the fans sensed that they may be treated to something special. “I was trying not to think too much about the crowd but I felt happy that the people were cheering me as well, in spite of Saina di playing against me,” she would say.

However, Kashyap’s fairy-tale would have to wait for another day as Nehwal switched her A-game on and won seven straight points to take a 11-10 lead into the first-game interval. Kashyap tried to hold on as long as possible, but the world No 11 was in the zone by then and raced on to take the first game 21-17.

As the players switched sides for the second game, Kashyap could no longer toss the shuttle up and follow the same strategy as she did in the first. The rallies, save for a couple, also became shorter as Nehwal cruised to a 21-17, 21-10 win to book a spot in the semi-finals.

Confidence boost

As the players left the court to cheers and more camera flashes, Kashyap was seen smiling again. She had lost but the experience of playing Nehwal – and giving her a fight – is sure to do wonders to her confidence going ahead.

“I was very happy because it’s not too often that you get to play against the top players,” she said. “I tried my level best to play well against her. It was a great experience and I’m sure I will benefit from playing against Saina di.”

Kashyap was not the only youngster who made the most of the opportunity to engage with India’s top shuttlers. Shreyanshi Pardeshi, 19, too gave it her best against world No 2 PV Sindhu in their quarter-final match, before losing 11-21, 17-21.

In the men’s draw as well, 19-year-old Chirag Sen took world No 11 HS Prannoy to three games before losing 7-21, 22-20, 15-21. Twenty-year-old Shubham Prajapati lost to world No 2 K Srikanth in straight games, but not without a fight, the final score reading 17-21, 21-23.

“I went into the match with the objective of winning,” Prajapati said after the match. “No matter what the result, I wanted to perform well. I feel proud the way I played and I want to continue this in the future. I want to beat him the next time if I get the chance.”

The semi-finals on Tuesday will present more such opportunities for India’s young shuttlers to upset the stars. The previous edition’s finalist, 16-year-old Lakshya Sen, will be taking on Srikanth in the most anticipated match of the semis.

Anura Prabhudesai, 19, will get the chance to face Nehwal, while Ruthvika Shivani Gadde, 20, is up against world No 2 PV Sindhu. With 17-year-old BM Rahul Bharadwaj and world No 67 Subhankar Dey already paving the way for upsets in these Nationals, it would be unwise to rule out any more. Either which way, this is an experience that the young ones won’t be forgetting any time soon.