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Full focus to go with half-smash is rising shuttler Priyanshu Rajawat’s mantra

Since Priyanshu Rajawat versus HS Prannoy was an all-India affair, no coach sat courtside during the Round 2 match at the BWF India Open here last month. In the stands, coaches Parupalli Kashyap and RMV Gurusaidutt sat together, keenly observing the action unfold.

Priyanshu Rajawat of India competes during the men's singles match against Lakshya Sen from India at the YONEX-SUNRISE India Open 2024 badminton tournament in New Delhi(Hindustan Times)
Priyanshu Rajawat of India competes during the men’s singles match against Lakshya Sen from India at the YONEX-SUNRISE India Open 2024 badminton tournament in New Delhi(Hindustan Times)

Though the senior Prannoy won, it wasn’t before Rajawat had pushed his fellow Thomas Cup champion the distance in a 76-minute batttle. “He really is a star of the future,” said Kashyap, former world No.1 K Srikanth’s coach.

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Rajawat, 22, is being hailed as the next big thing in Indian badminton, likely to take on the mantle once Prannoy and Srikanth retire.

Hailing from Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajawat picked up the sport aged five following his elder brother Kunal. Both were sent to the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Gwalior where Gopichand identified Rajawat’s talent and took him to the main centre in Hyderabad.

After winning titles in juniors and lower-tier senior events, the son of a photocopy shop owner got a huge fillip as part of the 2022 Thomas Cup winning team. Though he had a minor role – Rajawat played and won one match — the learnings watching his seniors win the historic title went a long way in grooming him. “The exposure was immense,” said 2014 Commonwealth Games champion Kashyap, who also coaches Rajawat at the academy.

The outcome was that Rajawat reached his first final on the BWF Tour at the Odisha Open in Cuttack before losing to compatriot Kiran George. But he didn’t have to wait long for his first BWF World Tour title when he won the 2023 Orleans Masters.

Though a back injury through the latter half of 2023 stopped him from showing his true potential, the Gopichand protege has done enough to overtake most of his compatriots to break into the top 30 in the world. He is currently No.28, behind No.7 Prannoy, No.19 Lakshya Sen and No.24 Srikanth.

“My speed is my strength. Everyone cannot play at such high speed. My attacking game gives me an advantage too. The combination gives me the belief to earn points in any situation against anyone. I am also improving my defence,” says Rajawat.

A facet in Rajawat’s game that marks him out from others is his half-smash. Unlike many who hammer down bullets or jump smashes Rajawat saves his energy by largely employing deceiving half-smashes, good enough to win a number of points.

“I don’t smash that much. My half-smash is strong enough. Everyone cannot do it. Only the half-smash of a few like (Olympic champion) Viktor Axelsen is very strong. Most players use the full smash to win points,” he added.

While Rajawat is aware of his strengths, he must conquer a few weaknesses too to progress.

“He has the speed and quality of strokes, which is impressive. But he needs to be consistent. With a game like that, it is not very easy. If he gets consistent, he could be there (at the top) for a long time as he has the weapons. He’s had some big wins but has been up and down quite a bit. The quicker he stabilises, the better it’ll be for him,” said India chief coach Gopichand.

Rajawat humbly accepts his flaws.

“Sir is right. I am focusing on my mindset. Many a time, after winning I think that the next round will be easier and take things lightly. I have to fix that. Gopi sir tells me that consistency will come with focus,” he says.

To improve his focus, which Rajawat hopes will also improve his consistency, he has been doing meditation for the last two years. Rajawat performs breathing exercises and regularly practices yoga nidra – a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, taught to him by Gopichand.

A fan of Lin Dan, Rajawat yearns to control games like the Chinese master by increasing his patience levels to win the big games. The youngster also has a realistic chance of qualifying for the Paris Olympics. “It is not too far away. I want to qualify for the Olympics,” said Rajawat, who likes to watch movies or play cricket on Sundays.

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