Deceptive Anupama Upadhyaya focuses on strength training to play on World Tour
Guidance from Gopichand, advice from senior players and learning from the Asian Games saw Anupama Upadhyaya earn rewards at the National Games.
Strength training is the catchword for Anupama Upadhyaya. The 18-year-old from the small town of Almora, Uttarakhand, nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, is the second badminton player to come out of the tranquil hill station after Lakshya Sen.
She has already embarked on an incredible journey by winning the gold medal at the 37th National Games in Goa.
The last few months have seen a remarkable turnaround in Anupama's career. Guidance from legendary coach Pullela Gopichand, advice from seniors like PV Sindhu and Lakshya and learning from the Asian Games saw her reap the benefits at the national level.
However, Anupama did not have any dedicated training centre or a professional coach for more than a year.
With her mother struggling with sciatica in October 2022, she was forced to cut short her training stint with Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru. Back in Delhi, where they live now, she had to run from pillar to post in search of a court. When she got one, she had to shell out Rs 300 for a session, lasting an hour. Her father Naveen doubled up as her coach.
Despite countering a testing time, in February-March this year, Anupama, the former world junior number one, was crowned the senior national champion. Eight months apart, she won the National Games gold with her wily and deceptive game, a rare style in the Indian context but more common among East Asian players.
"My wife was suffering from sciatica, so I had to come back to Delhi to take care of my family. I could not leave Anupama alone in Bengaluru since she was too young to manage everything. I was training her with the help of a couple of national-level players in Delhi," Naveen Upadhyaya, who quit his job with Delhi Police to live his daughter's dream, told The Bridge.
National champion crown not a lucky break
The national title enabled Anupama to win a spot in the Indian squad for the Sudirman Cup in China, where she got her first international exposure. In a one-off match that Anupama played there, she won in straight games. The experience she gained at the Asian Games, where she finally got to see her idol Tai Tzu Ying, a free-spirited player known for her enchanting deceptive game, she perfectly executed that at the National Games to prove again that her national championship crown was not a lucky break.
Playing against Aditi Bhatt in the final, Anupama imitated her role model Tai with a flick that deceived Bhatt; her stroke flew over the head of her opponent to land in the backcourt. That this was not a fluke became apparent on March 1 when she defeated Aakarshi Kashyap, a senior player who has a wealth of experience playing on the BWF World Tour, with her deceptive game and swift court coverage in the women's singles final of the National Badminton Championships.
"I usually watch Tai Tzu Ying's video a lot as I am her huge fan, and I have played those shots in the National Games as well. So I was watching my clips repeatedly to see how deceptive I have become and whether I have started playing like Tai," Anupama quipped.
Anupama, however, refused to call her decision to leave PPBA a setback. She was adamant that she received "a lot of benefits" because of her father's personalised coaching module.
"At PPBA, I had to train for 3-4 hours a day to get the coach's word but in personal coaching, one and a half an hour's training is fine. I could dedicate the rest of the day to enhancing my stamina and strength," stressed Anupama.
The selection to the Indian team following a win over Malvika Bansod and Unnati Hooda in the trials, winning the national championship and National Games women's singles gold were a staggering testament to that fact.
Gopichand, Sindhu's valuable words
Anupama is also happy with her Asian Games training stint under the coach Pullela Gopichand in Hyderabad. Anupama says it has helped her identify the aspects of her game where she needs to work diligently.
"The 15 days that I spent at the (Pullela) Gopichand Badminton Academy was extremely beneficial for me. Gopi sir gave me so many suggestions that helped me to improve my game. He said, I have good court coverage and net game, I should consider them as my strength. At the same time, I should work more on physical strength building and stroke variations," Anupama revealed.
She is also elated to see Sindhu's work ethic; it gave a boost to her confidence and willpower to work harder. Anupama did not just watch how Sindhu trained but also sought her senior's advice to fortify her game.
"Sindhu didi helped me with how to make my smashing better. Seeing her up close, I understood how much strength I needed in my body to play at the highest level. She asked me to change my grip style to panhandle grip of the racquet, that way my smashing would be much more effective and it would go much deeper," said Anupama.
But for years, Anupama, an introverted girl, despite possessing a solid game lacked confidence. "Whenever she played a tournament, she looked towards me seeking my instruction about what stroke she should play next," said Naveen.
Focus on strength
Although she overcame that fear over time, her fragile physique remains a worry for Anupama. She knows it is essential to be strong to get more control over her smashes and more variations on strokes to sharpen her game which, she says, is key to play and succeed on the World Tour.
"I think only the strength part was missing in my game. I have improved that, but still, I need to improve a lot to play like Sindhu and Saina (Nehwal) didi at that level. There are a lot more better players than me in other countries as well. I am watching videos and evaluating my game," she said.
Anupama is now fully focused on gaining physical stamina, which has been her weak point since she stepped into Almora's Sunder Lal Bahuguna Indoor Badminton Stadium in 2014 where DK Sen, Lakshya's father, was her coach.
"She is looking more confident now," Naveen added. It was possible because of personalised training.
With two national titles under her belt, Naveen enrolled Anupama at the newly launched National Centre for Excellence in Guwahati to get her the best facilities and training from international coaches.
"In October last year, we had to come back to Delhi as her mother was not doing well. I had been her coach since then. She joined the national centre mid-October this year," Naveen said.
She is working hard and smart as Anupama wants to see herself play Super 300 and Super 500 level tournaments regularly. The process of learning continues at the NCE under coach Sachin Rana, the assistant of renowned Korean coach Park Tae-Sang. "It is about how mentally and physically you have prepared yourself to match their speed," said Anupama.
"My physio, Vasu sir, has given me theraband exercise to expand the strength of my upper back, shoulder and forearms. This I do every day and do gym sessions thrice a week. Once the Korean coach is back, I will work on my game and strokes," said Anupama.
An Se Yong style, favourite
While Tai Tzu Ying is her role model, she also takes a keen interest in the evolution of the game. Anupama is particularly fond of An Se Young, the world no. 1. Despite being physically not so strong and lacking any deceptive game in her armoury, Young took the better of the best of the business with her free-flowing game, backed by seamless movement.
"Every time I watch her, I love to see her play. She is such an effortless player. She does not run much but makes others run. She does not have deception or big strokes in her game either. Yet, she is beating her opponents with her plain game and winning so many tournaments. She looks so calm. Her game is a combination of both attack and defence. It is as if she knows where the shuttle will fly to. She has a tremendous game awareness," said Anupama.
Against such a player, Anupama knows what difficulties her fellow Indian players face, and she wants to counter that fear.
"Gopi sir said I have a good court coverage but he told me that I need to work on my strength to play against them, and to win rallies I need to hone my attacking skills. He said they may play equal games in the first game, but the real test will come in the second and third games. To beat such a strong player, you have to maintain the momentum, maintain the same speed, same stamina and unleash different strokes. Mostly, we start well but cannot compete with them till the end," she observed.
Anupama is now taking National Games gold and Asian Games experience as a motivation to work harder, as she looks to graduate to tougher and rigid World Tour events, with the NCE taking care of her training and sponsoring her participation in seven international tournaments a year.