As Indian badminton rejoiced its unprecedented success in an epoch-making season, the young Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun, too, quietly turned a corner to emerge as the country's second best men's doubles pair.
Dhruv, 22, from Punjab and 25-year-old Arjun from Kerala may not have reached the dizzying heights as their more accomplished compatriots Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty (ranked 5th), but the duo had enough sting in its performance to rise from world number 42 to 19 in past 12 months.
They, however, will miss next week's Malaysia Super 1000 tournament due to an injury. The duo is also a doubtful starter for India Open, which has been upgraded to a Super 750 tournament from this year.
"I had this injury while training during French Open, so I had withdrawn from Hylo Open. I felt I had recovered but I felt discomfort again while we starting training a few weeks back, so now I am in Mumbai to address it," Arjun said. "It is nothing major, I have been advised to start rehab and depending on how I do this week, will take a call. So we have withdrawn from Malaysia Open. I am not sure about India Open as of now, my main priority is to get my fitness back as it is an important year for us."
Talking about their game, Arjun said: "We have to improve our defence. Our speed and attack are even better than many pairs in top 20 but we need to learn to survive in the rallies, it will help to consistently reach the quarters and semis." Dhruv, meanwhile, attributed their success to the meteoric rise of Satwik and Chirag.
"I think overall India is progressing in men's doubles, especially with Satwik and Chirag doing so well. We practice with them regularly and it motivates us. We have improved a lot by practicing with them," he said. "Both of them are always keen to help us and also Arjun himself is also quite experienced. He has been playing for 5 to 6 years now, so I believe we are improving step by step," he said.
Wins over more fancied opponents, quarterfinal finishes in big world tour events, including the BWF World Championships, and the tag of a Thomas Cup winner have given them the self belief to push the envelope further in 2023.
"I would rank Thomas Cup win high up there even though we didn't play in the knockout stage. Our performance in the season can be divided into pre and post Thomas Cup because it gave us immense confidence to convert the three setters into wins and it reflected in our performance," Arjun told PTI.
"Our world championships performance also stands out, to make quarterfinals was a big deal." "We also did well in Indonesia Super 1000 (second round), Singapore 500 (quarterfinal), and won a India challenger, the performances have given us confidence that we are progressing," Dhruv added.
In Singapore Open, the duo had stunned world number 10 Malaysia's Goh Sze Fei and Nur Izzuddin before losing in three games to world number 2 Indonesian combination of Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan. The Indonesian pair dashed their maiden world championships medal hopes when they beat them in the quarterfinals after the Indians had stunned Denmark's world number 8 Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen in round 2.
'Olympic qualification is definitely on our mind'
The Paris Olympic qualification will start from May 1 and the duo said making the cut will be the prime focus.
"We have to maintain this level. It is the pre-Olympic year, so the focus will be on qualification. It is a tough task but still we have to give it a try, we believe we can achieve that. From May, we will be pushing ourselves to play more tournaments," Dhruv said.
The Indian duo, currently ranked 21st, will have to be inside the top 8 when the final qualifiers list for the Games is announced on April 30, 2024. "Our target is to win Thailand Open in February. We want to do well in this tournament before the European circuit starts in March," Arjun said. "I think performance in early part of the year will put us in a position how we can go about in the Olympic year. It is there in our mind how to get our game up and come into top 16 and top 8 and get that qualification spot."