How a postponed Asian Games will be a secret blessing for some Indian athletes
From badminton prodigy Unnati Hooda to Vinesh Phogat’s new rival Anju, some youngsters have the perfect chance to follow in Neeraj Chopra’s footsteps now and make the most of a postponed Asian Games.
There are few things more exciting in sport than fresh young talent. That's what made the selection of Unnati Hooda to the Indian women's badminton team following last month's BAI selection trials so interesting. Only 14, following her qualification, Hooda would be the youngest-ever Indian badminton player to participate in the Uber Cup and Asian Games.
But even though it's refreshing to see the rise of a new potential star, there was still some doubt whether Unnati was ready for the big leagues. While the postponement of the 2022 Asian Games to next year was a source of distress to some, it might just be what Unnati - and some others - needed.
It's true the badminton prodigy already turned heads by winning an international tournament in Cuttack earlier in January, beating older and better-rated rivals, but it's also true that she's still a couple of paces behind the very best in the country.
Although Unnati did become the youngest Indian shuttler to clinch a BWF Super 100, Odisha Open had a largely depleted field with the omicron playing perfect spoilsport. Therefore even if the 14-year-old stood her ground against Malvika Bansod and Co., she is yet to expose herself to the full fire and brimstone of global badminton.
At the trials, she'd lost to both Aakarshi Kashyap and Ashmita Chaliha who are considered the second rung of women's players behind PV Sindhu right now, which is also a slight marker. Although her will to fight is immense, very reminiscent of a young Saina Nehwal with her trademark Haryvanvi grit, she's clearly not as physically strong as her much older rivals yet.
And so while we were glad that Hooda got the chance to compete at the continental Games, one also had to wonder just how good she might have been had she competed at that level when she was further along in her development as a player.
That's not just a guess anymore. With the Asian Games postponed to some point in the next year, perhaps we will get to see just that. Hooda will probably add some power to her strokes. Instead of just running down shuttles, she might even start putting away a few winners, and get a fuller game on her side.
If all does go well now, this one-off wish of ours will be granted.
Looking at the silver lining
Not only Hooda, but the development aspect is also true for a number of other youngsters as well. While the postponement of the Hangzhou Asian Games from its original dates in September (10th to 25th) this year for COVID-related reasons is likely a disappointment to a number of experienced athletes, there's a silver lining to it.
By pushing the Games another year down the line, a number of young juniors who might have been just a little green at the moment will have had a few more months to 'ripen' development-wise.
Take the case of wrestler Anju who is looking to secure a place in the women's 53kg category. At the moment that spot belongs to Vinesh Phogat. But Phogat's hold on that spot, once secure, is slipping against Anju, who has shown some steady progress.
The first time the two met – at the selection trials for the 2021 World Championships, Vinesh pulled off a 10-5 win. The next time they faced off at the Yasar Dogu Ranking series, Vinesh only managed to sneak out a narrow 8-7 win.
Anju wasn't allowed to compete in the selection trials for the Asian Championships but the U-23 World bronze medalist will probably come back even stronger against an older Vinesh when trials do take place for the postponed Asian Games next.
Another young athlete to possibly benefit can be long jumper Jeswin Aldrin. With a wind-assisted jump of 8.37m already, he's shaping up to make a real mark for himself as an elite athlete. But he's still just 19. He's only going to get stronger physically and sharper technique-wise. He's already amongst the best in Asia right now, but next year he could potentially be right on top of the pyramid.
Following in Neeraj Chopra's steps
To chisel one's way up to the top of this pyramid, however, will be a different story. One that will completely bank on the assumption that these young athletes make the most of the additional time they've been given.
It's of course disappointing to miss out on a tournament you had hyped yourself over but knowing you have additional time to better yourself, even more, should be an offer they should grab with both hands.
It's happened before already and there's no better role model for these kids than Neeraj Chopra. He was probably ready for the Tokyo Olympics had it been held on schedule in 2020 but following the postponement of the Games by another year, he didn't sulk. He just got on with things.
With the likes of Unnati and Jeswin still in and around their teenage years, this will be a vital strand to pick on - they cannot look at the delay of the Asian Games as a setback but rather a big opportunity for them to shine better. Age is on their side. It is their weapon and they must sharpen and eventually be able to brandish it.
Neeraj did the same for Tokyo - he used the extra time as a boon. In 2021 he'd set a new National Record early in the season and kept himself right on track. And of course, then there was the biggest medal of them all at the Tokyo Games with a massive 87.58m throw.
With Neeraj to look back upon as immediate inspiration, one can hope that this current group of youngsters will manage to find a way to fuel themselves even more and replicate similar golden deeds, once their moment arrives.