Badminton Worlds: Dhruv-Arjun prevail in thriller

Dhruv Kapila finally had had enough. All this year, he and partner MR Arjun had taken nice chunky leads in deciding games, only to falter at the crunch. A 15-10 advantage against Lee Jhe-Huei-Yang Po-Hsuan at the Thailand Open, 12-9 up against another Taiwanese pair, and a cat-and-mouse 13-11, 14-13, 17-16, 18-17, 19-18 leads in the third game against Ong Yew Sin-Teo Ee Yi at German Open, falling short on all occasions. The Indians, ranked No. 35, even ran the legendary Ahsan-Setiawan close at Singapore, after pushing a decider at the All England Championships. In all instances, they left the court disappointed.

Playing their World Championship opener against No. 33- ranked Supak Jomkoh-Kittinupong Ketren of Thailand, Dhruv finally scoffed at the familiarity of their brain-fade that took them from leading 15-6 in the decider to allowing the Thais back to 16-all.

“Wo bachpan se shaitaan hai, kab kya karega koi nahi bol sakta (he is mischievous from childhood. It’s difficult to predict his actions),” coach Vijaydeep Singh thought, watching the pair. Having watched Dhruv grow up from age 8 at the academy in Hyderabad, Vijaydeep reckoned the clever brat would pull off something unpredictable. The tall shuttler first charged on a Thai serve for a scything cross return, and in what made Vijaydeep chuckle the whole evening, pulled off a flick-serve next, at a clutch moment – something he’d stowed away for the very end.

The Indians eventually won 21-17, 17-21, 22-20, in what was the most exciting performance of the day, though the duo had contrived to make it this dramatic after leading comfortably at one juncture. Coach Mathias’s instructions to the bewildered pair, who saw 8 off 9 points from 15-6 up vanish in a matter of minutes, had been to not complicate. “He kept saying – keep it simple. We lost momentum in a matter of 2-3 points, and we’re just not able to score points. We went blank,” Dhruv told The Indian Express later.

Boe’s appeal to simplify got interpreted as trying the adventurous, unexpected flick serve in Dhruv’s transliteration. At any rate, it got the job done. Errors had caught up with the Indians, once even going for the same shuttle on the same side of the forecourt. “It wasn’t happening, and they were playing very steady at that point. But we knew we had to take this anyhow, we couldn’t leave the match now. We were playing such matches all this year! I just thought someone has to take the step, I can’t just stand there, so I went for it,” Dhruv recalled thinking. He imposed his frame on the front court on the last two points, the stomp getting them the win without any more stumbles.

The Ludhiana man would overcome the misery of memories, and with Arjun jolted out of his reverie too, would cross the Round 1 hurdle at the Worlds. The Indians led 1-0 in head-to- head records, but had struggled in the slow shuttle conditions inside the massive Tokyo Gymnasium arena.

It had been a 50/50 match, Dhruv reckons, from the outset, though the Indians took time to adjust to eschew playing the drives and instead keep the shuttle firmly down before taking the opener. As is their wont, the pair had inexplicably changed strategy midway through the second game – keeping one steady pace is something they are still internalising – and though they picked cheap points nearing the end of the second, the decider was again poised for drama.

“We were under pressure when we lost those points. I was shaking,” Dhruv recalled, adding it had taken Boe’s composure to calm them down after another one seemed to be racing away from them. The coach would offer a smile and pat on the back in the end, having shepherded them through an almost-similar Thomas Cup loss.

With memories of five deciders that went the other way at All England and later in the summer in Thailand, Dhruv knew they’d catch a break sooner than later. “I knew things would turn around but it was crucial for us to clear the first round,” he’d add.

Their next opponents are the antithesis of simple. Nothing about ‘brattier-than-thou’ Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen is ever straightforward. But their bond will help them give their best, Dhruv reckons. “We are on the same page, Arjun and I, and we always manage to stay in step. We’ll give our best,” he reckons.

Tough times, tight bond

Dhruv came to Hyderabad from Ludhiana when he was 8, and his parents couldn’t drop down often since he had a toddler brother back at home. Urged to take up badminton by his grandfather, Dhruv had made the move to the Gopichand academy alright, but like most kids, missed home. “Food, medicines, doctor, homesickness, it was my duty to help him as coach,” the jolly Vijaydeep recalls.

Paired with different partners till 2016, the two had been brought together after Arjun and Chirag Shetty both took a fancy to the forecourt. While Shetty went off with Satwik, Dhruv was brought in as the traditional heavy from the backcourt. Tall and strong, he complemented Arjun’s fast, agile, tricky net-play. India’s No. 2 pair, though, would buy into rotating front and back quicker than Satwik-Chirag, to share the hitting burden.

Arjun has a mean smashing jump, and Dhruv didn’t mind combative exchanges at the net. One was from Kerala, the other from Punjab, and they struck a great understanding, staying down to earth, just like Satwik-Chirag. “They both speak good Telugu. Arjun talks a lot of Hindi. And me and Pranaav Jerry Chopra were around for the Punjabi touch when Dhruv was young,” Vijaydeep recalls. A little laid-back in his teens, Dhruv has matured quickly over the last few seasons when he realised that he would fall behind.

So tuned-in is their bonding that they even botch leads and fritter away matches frustratingly at the same pace. “They tend to play in patches. We are working on that,” Vijaydeep explains. Hybrid skills help – Arjun’s attacking jump, and Dhruv’s nuanced deception from the back. “Sometimes, they take it easy when leading and the mind goes blank as continuous mistakes happen,” he added.

Dhruv’s game smarts, though, are innate. “He was very naughty earlier,” Vijaydeep says, and would sneak up on teammates and scare them. On Monday in Tokyo, Dhruv Kapila merely flicked a serve out of nowhere on match point, and a winning light came on.

Other Indian results:

Ashwini Ponappa-N Sikki Reddy bt Nabeeha Aminath-Nabaaha Fathimath (MDV) 21-7, 21-9; B Sai Praneeth lost to Chou Tien Chen (TPE) 21-15, 15-21, 21-15; Manu Attri-Sumeeth Reddy lost to Hiroki Okamura-Masayuki Onodera (JPN) 21-11, 19-21, 21-15; Lakshya Sen bt Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus (DEN) 21-12, 21-11; HS Prannoy bt Luka Wraber (AUT) 21-12, 2-11; Kidambi Srikanth by Nhat Nguyen(IRE) 22-20, 21-19; Malvika Bansod lost to Line Christophersen (DEN) 21-14, 21-12; Pooja Dandu-Sanjana Santosh bt Ines Salazar-Paula Regal (PER) 21-6, 10-21, 21-14; Ishaan Bhatnagar-Tanisha Crasto bt Patrick Scheiel-Franzisca Volkmann (GER) 21-12, 21-13.