On the up and up: Teenage shuttler Aditi Bhatt makes heads turn on senior debut
Having now graduated to the senior level, Aditi Bhatt is well aware the Indian badminton fraternity has identified her as among the players who can potentially follow in the footsteps of Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu.
For an intense hour on court, Aditi Bhatt and Busanan Ongbamrungphan were simply competitors. No More. No Less. In the heat of battle, it was forgotten that the 18-year old Indian was only playing her fourth match at the senior level, while the 25-year old Thai player was ranked 13 in the world and had just competed at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. India and Thailand were locking horns in a group stage tie of the Uber Cup in Aarhus, Denmark. Thailand had already won the first two matches and when Ongbamrungphan won the first game of the third match against Aditi 21-16, the result seemed a foregone formality.
However, much to the disbelief of her rival, the feisty Indian came roaring back in the contest to capture the second 21-18, and in the third the pair went toe to toe. Ongbamrungphan's superior experience helped her clinch the match but not before Aditi had impressed everyone in the arena with her gumption and skills. With straight game wins over Ania Setien of Spain and Rachel Sudgen of Scotland in the previous two ties, she had already made a strong early impression. Against Ongbamrungphan though, a player of much greater pedigree and experience, Aditi's display provided further evidence of why she is rated highly as a player with a bright future.
"Although I was nervous at the start of the match and trailed 1-8, I got confidence from my comeback in the first game," remembers Aditi. "Winning the second game made me even more confident and in the third, it was really neck and neck before she increased the pace of her play and won the match."
Aditi first picked up a racquet at the age of seven at her school in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi. She was a natural and her skills soon caught the attention of teachers, who suggested to her father Manoj, a banker, and mother Poonam, a homemaker, to enrol Aditi into an academy. Manoj had played a bit of football but his daughter's badminton talent initially came as a surprise. Taking the advice from the teachers, Aditi was sent to a local academy, and over the next four years, she made rapid progress.
Saina Nehwal, who was rising in the world rankings as Aditi took to the sport, was her early inspiration. After a few years, it was felt Aditi needed to train at an advanced facility. With her mother in tow, she moved to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) academy in Almora, Uttarakhand in 2014, under coach DK Sen. Four years later, Sen relocated to the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bengaluru, prompting the Bhatt family to do so as well, as they didn't want their daughter to stay at a hostel. Under coach Sen, Aditi continued to prosper, travelling to camps and competitions to all parts of the country with her mother for company.
"The support of my parents in my formative years has been crucial," says Aditi. "At every step, they ensured my training wasn't affected. I wouldn't have reached this far had it not been for their continuous encouragement and efforts."
Among the junior ranks, Aditi made eye-catching progress on both the national and international circuit. Her first major medal came at the Under-17 Asian Championships in Myanmar where she won bronze in the singles. Other notable achievements included winning the doubles and reaching the singles semifinals at the Dubai Junior International Tournament in 2019, capturing the doubles title at the Bulgarian Junior International Tournament in 2019 and winning both the singles and doubles in the Under-19 category at the All India Ranking Tournament in Panchkula in 2019, where she was also named player of the tournament. By the end of 2020, Aditi had risen to number ten in the World Junior rankings.
"Playing international tournaments is really exciting because players from different countries are there and that in itself is a huge motivation," she says. "The first time I went for an international tournament was in 2017 and although I was only selected for the doubles and not singles, which I prefer, the exposure was invaluable."
Based on glowing recommendations of senior coaches on the national circuit, Aditi was signed on for the Reliance Foundation Elite scholarship program in August, 2019. Besides financial support towards competition exposure and equipment, Aditi now had access to the specialist Sports Science and Medicine team at the Sir H.N. Reliance Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai. As the teenager took her first gradual steps towards the rigorous senior circuit, she could now rely on support in critical areas such as Physiotherapy, Strength & Conditioning, Nutrition and Sports Psychology.
Maithili Bhuptani, the Lead Sport & Exercise Psychologist at the Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, first assessed Aditi in June 2019 and her initial findings identified some areas of concern. Aditi had a strong tendency to be consumed by self-doubt and Bhuptani came to the conclusion that building her self-belief was a priority area. To make matters worse, during the lockdown, Aditi contracted Covid, and that took a severe toll on her sleep patterns.
Despite the challenges of having to work remotely, Bhuptani continued to counsel Aditi and focused on developing aspects such as confident body language, gestures and postures, besides visualisation, positive self-talk and deep breathing. It was also critical to help Aditi overcome her fear of injuries and enable her with the tools needed to peak under competition pressure. Over time, Bhuptani noticed a sea change in the athlete's attitude.
"In January 2020, Aditi would be really nervous about who she is playing with, what age her teammates are, and would doubt herself a lot because of her age," remembers Bhuptani. "We conducted thorough counselling with her to have her focus only her game and training and not on other factors such as age and rankings. Before going for the Uber Cup in in August 2021, Aditi called me and the first thing she said was, "My 1.5 years of training during the pandemic is literally paying off- even though I'm not as senior as the others, that doesn't affect my game. I feel so much more confident and believe in myself now."
Covid didn't just impact Aditi's sleep patterns, it also took a physical toll. That presented a stern challenge to Arvind Nigam, the Physiotherapist from the Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre who was working with her on physical therapy and strength & conditioning. Forced to conduct their sessions online since the country was in lockdown, Nigam had to be nimble in his approach to maintain Aditi's fitness levels. His assessment revealed what are called "musculoskeletal limitations" in physiotherapy parlance, making Aditi vulnerable to injuries. Along with strength and conditioning, Nigam started a preventive rehabilitation program that Aditi embraced wholeheartedly over repeated video calls.
Another challenge presented itself when Aditi suffered a severe ankle sprain in February, forcing her off the training court for three weeks. Nigam's approach again was a gradual rehab program, allowing her to return to court with no discomfort. Confident in her physical well-being, Aditi was able to train with full intensity and earned her first call-up to the Indian senior national teams for the Sudirman and Uber Cup.
"Aditi's functional strength and her dedication and compliance to the programs are commendable," says Nigam. "Going forward, we need to monitor her with an effective preventive program to make her less prone to badminton related injuries."
Besides Nigam, Aditi's physical well-being was also monitored by Mihira Khopkar, Lead Sports Nutritionist at the Sir H.N. Reliance Hospital and Research Centre. Unable to train and unsure of what to consume, Aditi had gained weight during the lockdown and Khopkar's approach to tackling the problem was to work specifically on fat loss and body composition changes. Aditi shed the extra kilos and inches but on resumption of training, she felt fatigued. Khopkar designed a program with appropriate pre and post-training meal practices and has provided Aditi with guidelines specific to match days, so she can sustain her levels of energy throughout the contest.
"She is extremely dedicated and diligent when it comes to her routine," says Khopkar. "In the case of nutrition, she follows the program to the T. She is always inquisitive to know how a particular intervention would help her on the court."
"We are a middle-class family and badminton can be an expensive sport, especially when it comes to getting exposure and sustaining training programs," said Aditi's parents. "The support from Reliance Foundation has played a big role in Aditi's success as it has eased the financial burden and opened up a wide range of training support for her."
Having now graduated to the senior level after her impressive feats on the junior circuit, Aditi is well aware the Indian badminton fraternity has identified her as among the players who can potentially follow in the footsteps of Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu. Armed with support from a specialist team of experts, Aditi, an admirer of Olympic silver medallist Tai Tzu Ying, is eager to play more tournaments in the near future and continue her progress up the ranks.
"Aditi is soft-spoken but an extremely confident individual," says her coach Sagar Chopda. "Her backhand is excellent, and she has one of the best drop shots among Indian players. Her smashes have also improved in the last few months."
"She is a bold and confident player, with a never give up attitude, who will play to her fullest when she's on the court," he adds. "She needs to work on her speed and agility and improve her fitness to compete at the international level. At the Uber Cup, she played very well and it was only due to a lack of speed and endurance that she couldn't upset Busanan. She can break into the top 100 in the next year and definitely has the potential to be ranked in the top 30."
As for Aditi, when asked what her long-term aspirations are, she says without hesitation:
"I want to win an Olympic and World medal for India."