Vaishnavi Bhale came to the senior national badminton championship without any expectations. She had hit a high when she was picked for the national team for the 2018 Uber Cup in May last year but played just one doubles match against Japan and had been struggling for form thereafter.

Her own levels of expectations had gone up after making it to the national team and a few niggles just before tournaments meant that she had struggled to win matches on the domestic circuit thereafter. Also, her record at the senior nationals wasn’t really noteworthy, having failed to cross the second round hurdle in the two appearances before.

But all that changed with a straight games win over former national champion PC Thulasi in the opening round and she has simply gone from strength to strength since.

In the quarter-finals, she showed that she also had the nerves to handle pressure to save a match point in the second game and then change the tempo of the match against third seed Shreyanshi Pardeshi to win 21, 22-20, 21-11 in just under an hour to reach her first nationals semi-final.

It hasn’t been an easy journey for Nagpur girl Bhale, who took up badminton along with her two cousins but did not really set the stage on fire in the junior circuit. But her consistency and work ethic always won her praise from the coaches.

“Yes, juniors wasn’t great in terms of results. But I love playing the game and I always wanted to play for India at some stage,” said the 22-year-old who trains with Kiran Makode.

That international debut came at the Uber Cup when she was hardly expecting that break, considering that she had played only three matches on the BWF tour prior to that. Those outings came in the 2-15 Tata Open in Mumbai when she qualified for the main draw where she lost in the opening round against Thulasi.

“It wasn’t possible for my parents to raise funds for playing international tournaments. And the last few years, I have either been injured or busy with exams when the (lower rung events) tournaments are held in India,” said Vaishnavi.

She instead concentrated on the Inter-University circuit during the last few years and represented India in three World University Games and that along with her rise in the domestic circuit has helped her get a job with Indian Railways.

Since the Uber Cup outing, Bhale had entered the Mexicano International in September this year but withdrew at the last minute.

While Makode and Bhale couldn’t do much about the funding part, they did work a lot on the different aspects of her game in the last couple of years and the changes are beginning to show results.

“Vaishnavi was a vegetarian and lacked strength despite good endurance. So we started working on her strength training and she even started eating chicken as high protein diet was a necessity,” said Makode.

Makode knows that, at 22, Bhale doesn’t have much time at her hand and they need to do something quickly to get the required exposure if she has to make the grade and play bigger tournaments. “We have been trying for some sponsorship and are hopeful of getting some support after her improved performance has generated some interest in Nagpur.”

The semi-final appearance against Saina Nehwal, who defeated Neha Pandit 21-10, 21-10 in the quarter-finals, would be good opportunity for Bhale to impress the selectors and earn a berth in the national core group. The stakes couldn’t get higher for the 22-year-old and it would interesting to see how she handles the pressure and an opponent who loves to dominate.