Asian Games 2018

Badminton: Finally armed with the right partner, Arathi Sara Sunil is looking forward to Asian Games

The 23-year-old was paired with the young Rutaparna Panda as a stopgap measure, but the partnership has struck gold early.

Prajakta Sawant, Sanyogita Ghorpade, Poorvisha S Ram, Sanjana Santosh, Maneesha K, Mahima Aggarwal, Rutaparna Panda.

If you have been following Indian badminton, you would know that the above seven are all doubles players. However, that’s not the only thing they’ve got in common.

All seven have, in the last four years, partnered with Arathi Sara Sunil, some for a few weeks and others for a few months. And that’s just counting the senior circuit.

Arathi’s partnerships have ended for various reasons, from injuries, to compatibility, to lack of results. After splitting up with Sanjana Santosh following the world championships last year, in which they lost in the second round, Arathi played with Maneesha till November, before the latter got injured. Then, she partnered with Mahima Agarwal for two tournaments, but it did not work out.

Then, sometime in the middle of May, India’s doubles coaches asked the 23-year-old Arathi if she was willing to play with a junior. Rutaparna Panda, 18, one of the most promising doubles badminton players in the country, was looking for someone to play with since her regular partner Mithula UK had sustained a long-term injury.

“I said, ‘Why not?’ I have anyway partnered with so many players, so why not try one more,” Arathi told Scroll.in.

Instant success

After less than a month of training together at the national camp in Hyderabad, Arathi and Rutaparna entered their first tournament together in Bengaluru last month. And they won it.

It was a senior ranking tournament, which also served as a selection trial for the Asian Games. This meant that the field was strong, with everyone who was fit and outside the elite club of 13 players who had secured a ticket to Jakarta participating in it.

Arathi and Rutaparna got past pairs who were far more experienced than them, such as Sawant and Ghorpade, Aparna Balan and Sruthi KP, Poorvisha and Meghana J, on their way to the title.

In Hyderabad the following week, Arathi and Rutaparna paired up again for another senior ranking tournament, the second selection event for the Asian Games. This time, they were beaten in the semi-finals by Sawant and Ghorpade 21-18, 13-21, 8-21. However, Arathi had sustained a tear in her left shoulder during the tournament, but because it was her non-playing hand she had decided not to withdraw.

“It is my non-playing arm but you still need it for balance,” she said after the match, with her arm in a sling. “I was in a lot of pain but I thought let’s just get done with it.”

Arathi and Rutaparna were rewarded for their performance with a spot in India’s Asian Games squad, which was announced by the Badminton Association of India on June 26. It’s amazing to think that less than two months ago, the two were not even playing together. Today, they are in the Asian Games team.

“We had good preparation of four weeks before the selection tournaments,” Arathi said, when asked how she and Rutaparna had managed to do so well so soon. “The coaches also focussed on our pair. We did our homework before each match and we try to apply that on the court.”

After going through six previous partners, Arathi thinks she has found the right fit in the young Rutaparna. “Panda is very agile on court, and also likes to move around and play like I do. Both of us depend on our physical attributes more than our skills. We complement each other in that way,” said Arathi.

Panda also has the hunger to succeed, which Arathi feels is one of the main reasons why their partnership has worked. “That creates a lot of difference on court – that passion to achieve something and do something with your life. That ‘I’m not going to give up’ kind of attitude is very important.

“Many players can’t push to the extent that no matter what comes in our way we don’t mind it. You don’t need the skills of Lin Dan to win tournaments. Giving 100% is more important,” she added.

Hitting a string

Hailing from Cochin, Arathi started playing badminton when she was around eight not because she was interested in the sport but because her father wanted her to get some exercise. “I was very chubby as a child,” she said. “My father used to play in the evenings at the Rajiv Gandhi stadium and we stay five minutes away from it, so he suggested why not me and my sister also get some exercise.”

Apart from her father’s wish of her playing a sport, Arathi and her sister also had to entertain her mother’s interest in classical dance. “We started with two days of classical dance and three days of badminton,” she said.

Arathi did not enjoy badminton at first because she was hardly allowed on court by her coach as she was shorter than all other kids. As a result, she used to spend most of her time hitting a shuttlecock hanging on a string off the roof.

“The coach used to say, ‘She cannot even hold a racket.’ I used to crib a lot about not being able to play on court and wanted to stop. My mother then went and asked the coach to at least give me five minutes of time on the court,” she said.

Once that beginners’ phase got over and Arathi changed her coach, her interest in the sport grew. She started off as a singles player but eventually settled on doubles because she wasn’t getting the desired results. “I moved to doubles without having a partner,” she said. I decided that I will get good and somebody will come and pick me up. Eventually, Prajakta asked me to partner her.”

Tough choice

Four years and seven partners later, Arathi has secured herself a ticket to Jakarta for the Asian Games, along with Rutaparna. However, the big question is whether they will continue their partnership once Mithula returns to full fitness.

Rutaparna and Mithula are, after all, the reigning junior national champions and had formed a successful partnership since coming together in the first half of last year. In fact, Rutaparna and Mithula had also won their first tournament together – a junior ranking event in June 2017.

“It’s up to the coaches,” said Arathi. “Even this partnership was decided by the coaches. I did not call it. I’m sure they will take a wise decision. I can only work towards being the best at what I do.”

Not even the coaches at the national camp know the answer for now. “We will see how it goes,” said Arun Vishnu, one of the doubles coaches at the Pullela Gopichand academy in Hyderabad. “Right now, they are complementing each other really well. It will be a tough choice.”

Arathi said she’ll be totally fine if the coaches do decide to break their partnership. “I’ve got that reputation of changing partners anyway, so I don’t care,” she said, laughing.

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