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India Open 2024: Priyanshu ticks off “important win” with a hopeful eye on Paris qualification

Priyanshu Rajawat celebrated with a theatrically wheeled fist bump when he finally closed out his three-game 16-21 21-16 21-13 win over former champion Lakshya Sen in the opening round of the India Open World Tour 750 at New Delhi’s KD Jadhav Stadium.

It was a moment that was worth the celebration. After a disappointing first game, he had recovered and methodically broken down the former World silver medallist in the next two games. By beating Sen, Rajawat had not only picked up one of his career’s highlight wins, but it also rekindled in him some of the self-belief that one felt had gone missing in recent months.

From the time he became the first (and only) Indian to win a World Tour title last year – at the Orleans Masters 300 in April – Rajawat had been marked out as the hottest new product in the Indian men’s singles conveyor belt. Although he had been earmarked for his prodigious talent even earlier in fact – back in 2020, as an 18-year-old, he had beaten the far higher ranked Korean Lee Dong Keun in the PBL – but the Orleans Masters was to be his breakout moment.

Rajawat was full of self-belief back then. “The Olympic qualification is fast approaching. I don’t think it would be impossible to win an Olympic medal,” he had told Sportstar shortly after he had returned from the Orleans Masters.

Yet for all his promise, the 22-year-old hadn’t had the sort of run he might have expected. Apart from the Australian Open in August last year where he made the semifinals, Rajawat has found it hard to pull off the sort of results that would separate him from the very strong Indian men’s singles field. It appeared he had lost some of his self-assurance as well. In the Japan Open in July, he had held two match points against Lakshya Sen before losing in three games.

For all his potential, there were probable issues that had been noticed by coaches. “Priyanshu has the rare combination of being tall and extremely fast and often plays a high-intensity game. A bit like (Anthony) Ginting, which makes him stand out,” former doubles champion and current USA coach Shlokh Ramachandran had told Scroll last year. “He looks lanky but can surprise players with the power he generates with his big smashes, but his biggest weapon is his half-smash which comes down to his picture-perfect contact point. Extremely comfortable with playing slow and high-paced games, he is solid in defence which allows him to also play counter-attacking badminton, and has enough X-Factor about him to cause a threat to the best players in the world. But Priyanshu’s biggest concern is how injury prone he is, as I do not see any red flags technically or tactically on the court,” Shlokh had said.

“He has all the strokes. But with his style of play the challenge will be to stay consistent,” national coach Pullela Gopichand would agree.

Priyanshu Rajawat plays a shot against Lakshya Sen during the opening round match.

Priyanshu Rajawat plays a shot against Lakshya Sen during the opening round match.
| Photo Credit:
R V MOORTHY / The Hindu


Priyanshu Rajawat plays a shot against Lakshya Sen during the opening round match.
| Photo Credit:
R V MOORTHY / The Hindu

That had indeed been the case for Rajawat. “I’d started getting back problems at the Japan Open last year. Then at the end of the year I suffered a swelling in my back. It wasn’t getting better. Because of that I missed a few tournaments in December last year,” Rajawat would say later on Tuesday.

Indeed, at the start of the India Open, Rajawat was ranked 28th in the World – only the fourth highest Indian men’s singles player – behind HS Prannoy (WR 8), Lakshya Sen (WR 19) and Kidambi Srikanth (WR 25). If he had to give himself a chance of fulfilling his Olympic goals, Rajawat needed to break into the top 16. A solid run at the India Open, would go some way towards that target.

After the opening game at least, it didn’t appear that was going to be the case. Overeager to finish off points, he tried to play fast and lost control of rallies.

Against a player from another nationality, Rajawat would have turned to his corner and coach Anil Kumar Nigam for advice. But against a fellow Indian, he had to depend on his own vices. He did exactly that. “I realised I was playing too fast. I was making too many errors. I decided I needed to slow up the game. I had to stretch the rallies and wait for him (Sen) to make the mistakes,” he said.

He would do just that and the strategy paid off handsomely. There was just one more potential hurdle to overcome. As he opened up 11-5 leads in both the second and third games, Rajawat says his mind went back to his loss against the same opponent at the Japan Open where he had failed to close out the match. “I really wanted to win. The last time I had lost a very close game and I remember how sad it made me feel. This time I wanted to play to my potential. Even when I had the lead at 11-5 (and then 18-11) in the third game, I still felt he could comeback. So I tried to push through to the end,” he says.

With his win against Lakshya wrapped up, Rajawat knows just how important it is. “After a long time, I’ve had a good match. It was really important to win and go to the next round. This win is important because I’m understanding how to beat top players,” he says.

Also read | Rajawat, Prannoy enter second round of India Open

Up next is another top player and in fact a higher ranked Indian in HS Prannoy. The latter is coming off a solid win – albeit in two games against Chou Tien Chen. Although he’s lost on both occasions he’s played Prannoy, Rajawat is respectful while staying confident. “Prannoy is like an elder brother to me. It will be good to play against him,” he says.

Rajawat made it clear he isn’t happy just getting the one-off wins. He says he’s focused on working towards long term success. “Right now, I am focusing on staying injury free as long as possible. I am working with a nutritionist on my diet. I am training so that I can stay fully fit. I’m also doing meditation every day. That way I stay calm on court and it’s also good for my body,” he says.

If he does, he believes he can leapfrog a few of his senior compatriots and possibly make his way to Paris. “I don’t think this is not possible. There are still some tournaments for me. I am still hoping I can qualify for the Olympics,” he says.

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