When Mark Caljouw faced off against India’s rising badminton star Lakshya Sen in the opening match of the Premier Badminton League’s fourth season in Mumbai about 10 days ago and lost the opening game rather easily, fans were heard asking each other who this player was and what had prompted defending champions Hyderabad Hunters to pick him in the squad.

The Rs 7 lakh price tag for the Dutchman, second lowest for a foreign men’s singles player this season, hardly gave any glimpse in the potential of the 23-year-old from Rijswijk. But by the end of that 40-minute encounter, Caljouw staged a superb comeback to win the match on the decider point.

And as the league enters the business-end of the tournament, Caljouw is one of the three men’s singles players — the other two being Sameer Verma of Mumbai Rockets and K Srikanth of Belgaluru Raptors — to have an unbeaten record having played at least four matches and had accounted for two trumps of opposition teams.

The trump matches are extremely important in the context of the league since a trump won gives a team two points but a point is deducted if the player designated as a a trump loses the match.

Against crowd favourite P Kashyap of Chennai Smashers in Hyderabad, Caljouw had to show nerves of steel to counter difficult court conditions and a local hero to put his team on the road to victory while his attacking game floored former world number 6 and 2014 Asian games silver medallist Tian Houwei in straight games to catapult the team on the top of league standings.

“It has been a very good start for me and also the team,” said Caljouw before adding that he never really expected to find himself in the mix for an PBL team but was fortunate to be considered after two good years on the international circuit.

List of unbeaten players (minimum 4 wins)

Players Teams Unbeaten run Price Tag
Sameer Verma Mumbai Rockets 5/5 Rs 42 lakh
Mark Caljouw Hyderabad Hunters 4/4 Rs 7 lakh
K Srikanth Bengaluru Raptors 4/4 Rs 80 lakh
Sung Ji Hyun Chennai Smashers 4/4 Rs 80 lakh
Kim Sa Rang/Bodin Isara Hyderabad Hunters  4/4 Rs 45 lakh/Rs 21 lakh

To an extent, Caljouw was also fortunate that Hunters had spent a lot of money on signing their icon player PV Sindhu (Rs 80 lakh) and top men’s singles players Lee Hyun Il (Rs 60 lakh) and needed to make a smart investment for the second men’s singles spot without compromising on quality of the player.

“Once we got Lee Hyun Il, we were looking for a second singles player who could help us beat an opposition trump. We had studied Mark’s performance in the last one year and felt that he won’t be easy for other teams to trump. And he has proved to be a perfect fit,” explained team manager Vamshidhar Gurram about the logic behind opting for Caljouw ahead of some of the more well known names in the auction.

The 23-year-old Dutchman, who was languishing outside the top-100 ranking in March 2017, reached a career high ranking of 25 earlier this year with a title triumph in the Orleans Masters where he accounted for former world number 2 Jan O Jorgensen and India’s Sameer Verma. He also reached the final of the US Open Super 300, losing to Korea’s Lee Dong-Keun. But in the PBL, he defeated the Korean, who is representing Awadhe Warriors, in the only tie the Hunters ended up losing on aggregate score.

Explaining his rise over the last two years, Caljouw says the decision of the federation to rope in Denmark’s Jonas Lyduch as the coach has worked wonders for him. “About four five years ago, the badminton budget was cut to zero. Then, a new team took over in the Federation and they got new coaches and that has helped. We have been working hard and the mentality is very good and that is helping me.”

Like most other countries in Europe, badminton is not a major sport in Netherlands but Caljouw insists that he never considered any other sport. “It was an easy decision for me. My mother used to play badminton. My brothers were playing badminton and I joined a local club (BC Randstad) when I was eight. As 12, the club asked me to move to a better club after looking at my potential,” he added.

Caljouw also broke into the junior national team in 2008 and his best performance in the junior came when he reached the European Junior Championship final in 2013.

The world number 35 insists that the biggest takeaway for him from the PBL was to experience the competition level and learn from watching the top players in action as he focuses on making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“My one and only target is to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. I know it’s not going to be easy and I will have to target being in the top-16 of the world ranking but that is the biggest goal and the one that matters,” he added.

But for now, Caljouw is focused on extending his winning record in the PBL when the team faces Ahmedabad Smash Masters on their home turf on Sunday. He is likely to face either Chong Wei Feng or Sourabh Verma, against whom he lost the Dutch Open semifinal in October last year. The task isn’t going to be easy but for Caljouw is high on confidence and doing things the hard way isn’t really new to him.