Ashmita Chaliha is on cloud nine. Not only did the 18-year-old Assamese win her first senior ranking badminton tournament, in Hyderabad on Sunday, but by doing so she has put herself in a strong position to be picked in India’s 2018 Asian Games squad.

“It feels amazing,” she said after the final, where she beat third seed Sai Uttejitha Rao in three games. “[If I’m picked] it will be the first time I’ll be in the Indian team for a senior tournament. I have played Asian and world juniors before, but now I’m looking forward to playing with Saina [Nehwal] and [PV] Sindhu.”

The Indian selection committee will be meeting later on Monday to pick the Asian Games squad. The Badminton Association of India had marked two senior ranking tournaments – in Bengaluru and Hyderabad – as selection trials for the quadrennial continental event. By winning the Hyderabad tournament and reaching the semi-finals in Bengaluru, Ashmita has a good chance of being picked in the team.

The 18-year-old, who trains at the Assam Badminton Academy under Indonesian coach Edwin Iriawan and India’s Suranjan Bhobora, has come a long way since last December, when she lost in the quarter-finals of the junior national championship held in her hometown Guwahati.

Ashmita was distraught after the defeat to Vaidehi Choudhari in three games. She had gone into the junior national championship full of confidence after bagging gold medals in the individual and mixed-team events at the inaugural South Asia Regional Badminton Tournament, also held in Guwahati.

Winning the junior nationals on home turf would have been the icing on the cake. Unfortunately for her, she could not taste it. Then, as the 2018 season began, Ashmita made the jump to the senior category on the national circuit. She played in four senior ranking tournaments before Hyderabad but a semi-final appearance was her best showing.

Mental block

She lost to higher-ranked players – Uttejitha and Vaishnavi Bhale twice each – in all those tournaments, and there was a pattern in her defeats. Ashmita was winning the first game rather comfortably, but then wasn’t able to keep up the momentum.

Against Vaishnavi Bhale in Bareilly, she won the first game 21-15 but then went on to lose the next two 11-21 and 16-21. Against Uttejitha in Bengaluru last week, Ashmita won the first game by a 21-7 margin, but then lost the next two 15-21 and 20-22.

It was like a mental block. She would win the first game but then frustratingly start committing errors and lose confidence as the match progressed, said her coach Bhobora. “I told her that if she could only play during tournaments like how she does during training, she will win everything,” he said. “She used to get tense during matches and wasn’t mentally tough.”

Ashmita Chaliha with her Indonesian coach from the Assam Badminton Academy, Edwin Iriawan (Image: Edwin Iriawan/Facebook)

After losing in the semi-finals in Bengaluru, Ashmita entered the Hyderabad edition of the All India Senior Ranking Tournament earlier this week as the 16th seed. She passed the initial rounds easily with straight-game wins. In the semi-finals, she faced her first test – junior national champion Aakarshi Kashyap – but came back from a game down to beat her.

In the final on Sunday, Ashmita was up against Uttejitha again, who had beaten her twice this year already. Once again, Ashmita won the first game 21-16 but then capitulated in the second 14-21. It was deja vu all over again.

Or not.

Ashmita had done her homework and gone into the game with just one plan, and that was to not engage Uttejitha in rallies. “I knew that if I play rallies I may lose so I played more downward and attacking strokes,” she said.

Her aggressive play seemed to have caught Uttejitha unawares. Even though the Andhra Pradesh shuttler took a 10-6 lead in the third game, Ashmita kept attacking and won the next six points to open up a two-point lead for herself.

From there, a nervous Uttejitha committed quite a few unforced errors and allowed Ashmita to run away with the game. Ashmita won the match 21-16, 14-21, 21-15 and Bhobora hopes this is the end to her frustrating pattern of defeats.

“She is a very talented girl and has already performed at the junior level,” he said. “The only thing left is to prove herself at the senior level, which she has now started doing. It’s a long time since an Assam player has won the all-India title, especially in singles. Hopefully, this is a start.”

Lefty with a difference

Ashmita sticks out from the other women’s singles shuttlers on the national circuit and not just because she is a lefty – one of the very few at the top level. What distinguishes her from most Indian women’s singles players is that she loves to attack and finish off points rather than go for rallies.

Ashmita is one of the few left-handed singles players at the top level in India (Image: Ashmita Chaliha/Facebook)

“I can play rallies depending on the opponent but I prefer attacking more,” said Ashmita, who took up badminton at the age of seven because her father, who was a tennis player, wanted her to play a sport.

She did not like badminton in the first couple of years after taking up the sport but once she started winning district- and state-level tournaments, her interest grew.

At 18 years of age, Ashmita isn’t very tall but her jump smashes still are quite effective. Lean, nimble and light-footed, she also has very good hand movements and likes to play deceptive drop shots. All this coupled with the natural elegance that comes with left-handed players in a racket sport, Ashmita is quite an exciting player to watch.

“She plays like a boy because she practises a lot with boys,” said Bhobora. “We are still working on her mental and physical strength, and her stamina. At the senior level, she has to beat all kinds of players, so she has to become more physically fit and reduce her errors.”

Now that Ashmita is regularly playing at the senior level on the national circuit, she will also slowly start competing in international tournaments from this year. She does not have a world ranking yet as she hasn’t played on the international circuit apart from global events such as the world juniors and Asian junior championships. “I will discuss with my coaches and take a call,” she said.

If Ashmita is picked for the Asian Games, she is unlikely to get a chance in the individual event as each country can send only two entries, which will most likely be Saina and Sindhu. Ashmita would only have a chance to play in the team event in Jakarta, but it would be a start nonetheless. If she manages to impress and keep that mental block away, sky’s the limit.