Sankar Muthusamy’s silver at the BWF Junior World Championships was a creditable achievement, but the 18-year-old doesn’t rate it as one of his best moments – even though he respects the medal and all that it means in his young career.
Why? Because he knows that this silver is just the start; the senior level is where he has his sights set.
He has already been competing on the senior circuit for the last few years and even now is training for his next BWF tournament, alongside the celebrations for his junior silver.
“Winning a medal for your country is special. Many are saying this is a very good victory, and of course it is, but I want to perform more on the senior circuit. There is celebration, but I have to focus on my next match,” Sankar tells ESPN.
This is the kind of refreshing perspective that can often be lacking in Indian sport. After all, junior success is no guarantee of the future. Three other Indians have been finalists at the event – Aparna Popat (1996), Saina Nehwal (2006) and Siril Verma (2015), with only Saina becoming a world junior champion (2008). Stars such as HS Prannoy and Lakshya Sen have won bronzes at the event.
The player from Chennai is well aware of this and, actually, wasn’t too keen on playing this tournament this year. As his coach, Aravindan Samiappan (of the Fireball Academy), puts it – “At 19 you shouldn’t be playing Under-19.” That was until he broke into the top 10 ranks and his team realised there was a very good chance for a marquee medal.
“I left juniors in the last three years and it was because of my senior international points that I [entered] the top 10 in junior [rankings]. Only for Worlds, I switched to juniors. Other than the selection trials for it, I played 2 international tournaments in Russia and Iran, which had both seniors and juniors at same venue, and won both which helped me become the world No 1,” says Sankar.
“At 15, he was in India’s U19 team,” coach Samiappan says. “But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and rankings changed and then we realized he has a chance to be the world No 1 in juniors. He missed several senior tournaments to focus on this tournament. Maybe he would have broken into top 100 [senior]. But world No 1 is a magic number, no?”
Magic number or not, the achievement doesn’t really affect the path for the teenager’s future, which has been planned for meticulously.
“My dad had a long-term vision so the transition is not new for me…. I was doing well that’s why I had the courage to leave juniors.” His father has been the driving force behind him, along with his coach – who says, “We were both mad enough to put our all into this.”
Sankar started badminton at 5 as his father Muthusamy, a tennis player himself, wanted his children to play sport. His father was so invested he quit his job, and now travels with his son and does some coaching of his own on the side. Sankar himself quit school to give more time to training and Samiappan gave him one-on-one coaching, alongside his sister, for a chunk of formative years.
Sankar, who missed out on the team event at the worlds for what are said to be “disciplinary reasons”, said he won’t do anything differently now, just as he didn’t before the Worlds.
“I didn’t have any special preparation for the worlds. For past five weeks I have been playing senior tournaments such as Vietnam Open and Challengers in India. This medal hasn’t changed my plans, I want to play more Super 100 and 300 to increase my world ranking. I want to get into top 50 and top 30 as soon as possible. Then I can play all big BWF tournaments.”
His coach is also brutally honest about the future. “He has done reasonably well but needs to consistently beat top players, that’s where we should be soon,” he says. “Only if you beat top players and win tournaments can you get into the top 30-40 and play top-tier tournaments. He should get physically strong in the next one-two years now.”
The biggest focus of improvement will be in attack. Sankar is a primarily defensive player, as seen in his matches at the championship in Spain. While this is seen as a strength by his team, they are also aware of its limitations.
“Basically I am defensive player but I have started to attack more over the last one year. But it’s not just attack, I want to learn to play more accurate strokes in defense as well,” he says.
Samiappan adds, “Our emphasis is to develop his strength, which is defense. He lost the final not because his opponent was attacking more but also because he was not in good rhythm defensively, His quarterfinal performance [beating China’s Hu Zhe An 21-18, 8-21, 21-16] was better, he was a tougher opponent.”
With his defensive style, it’s hard not to make a connect with another Indian youngster; Lakshya Sen. But Sankar says Lakshya has a more explosive game, while he relates his game more to former world No 1 Kento Momota — his favourite player along with Lin Dan.
To reach the level of Lakshya, or Momota, is a tall ask. But what’s promising is that not only are both Sankar and Aravindan very vocal about this (and guard against any hype), they are also working towards realistic targets.