India fielding a below-strength squad for the prestigious Thomas and Uber Cup Finals in Bangkok starting on Sunday may not have gone down well with some Indian badminton fans, but Anura Prabhudesai and Vaishnavi Bhale are among those who are definitely not complaining.
Prabhudesai, 19, and Bhale, 21, are in India’s Uber Cup team on the basis of their All-India rankings, which are No 1 and No 2 respectively. Prabhudesai is in fact the first shuttler from Goa to be ranked India No 1.
(Note: The All-India rankings are separate from the world rankings, and are calculated on the basis of a player’s performance at national ranking tournaments)
The two youngsters, along with world No 56 Vaishnavi Jakka Reddy and world No 64 Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli, will join the experienced Saina Nehwal in the singles contingent, with Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu given a rest.
Prabhudesai and Bhale both train in Nagpur but under different coaches. They also play doubles together on the national circuit, but both women want to focus on their singles career for now.
Contrasting styles of play
One of the first things that anyone would notice about Prabhudesai is her height. At 5’9”, she is taller than most of her compatriots and she obviously likes to use that to her advantage. “My main power is my smashes,” she said. “I like to use my height and go for half smashes too. I also like to go to the net and dribble.”
Against the likes of the Japanese shuttlers, though, whom India will face in their Uber Cup group, playing the patient rally game will be key. Prabhudesai’s coach Jibi Varghese does not want the 19-year-old to deviate from her attacking playing style, but says that her fitness and leg strength has to improve if she wants to do well internationally.
“It is very tough for a tall person to play rallies for a longer period of time,” Varghese said. “Attacking is her strength but she needs her legs to be strong and has to be agile to stop the flow of rallies. That’s why we are working on strengthening her lower body.”
Bhale, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. “She is a rally player. The attacking game doesn’t come naturally to her,” said her coach Kiran Makode. “Because she is lean, she does not rely much on the power game. She has got good half smashes, drop shots and dribbles, but she relies more on rallies and good strokes.”
Bhale, however, feels she can adapt her game according to her opponent’s style. “If my opponent plays a fast game, I play slow, and if she is into rallies more then I try to attack,” she said. “But I like to rally.”
Both Prabhudesai and Bhale are looking forward to sharing the dressing room with Olympic and world championship bronze medallist Saina Nehwal. “I feel really happy to be selected for such a prestigious tournament,” said Prabhudesai. “I will get experience playing alongside Saina Nehwal, so I am really looking forward to it.”
After conquering the national circuit, both women now want to play more international tournaments in the rest of the season. “I had set my target to be India No 1 so I played more national tournaments last year,” said Prabhudesai, who recently signed up to play for the Indian Railways. “Now that I am India No 1, I want to improve my international ranking (115). I want to break into the top 50 this year.”
Bhale, on the other hand, does not even have a world ranking yet since she hasn’t played enough on the international circuit because of the lack of sponsors. The 21-year-old has so far been funding her own travel from the prize money earned on the national circuit. Playing in a tournament in Asia costs anywhere between Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000, while outside Asia it can go over Rs 1 lakh.
“We are in talks with a few corporates now [to sponsor her],” said coach Makode. “We are also searching for a sports quota job for her. We want to target the international circuit and get her a good world ranking as soon as possible. We will definitely be playing four to five international tournaments this year.”
Playing in the Uber Cup will thus be valuable international experience for both Prabhudesai and Bhale. They can go and play freely considering the weight of expectations won’t be on them. Prabhudesai is understandably excited about playing in Bangkok against the world’s best. “I am trying not to think too much about it. I want to go on a match-by-match basis. If I get a chance to play, I will give my full 100%,” she said.
If both women manage to raise their game and have a good tournament, regardless of the results, it would certainly augur well for the rest of their season.