It's an unenviable task for any player to try and match the standards set by Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. While there has been no lack of effort, it's simply proven difficult to match Saina-Sindhu. Something, be it talent, commitment, or both, is missing in the next generation of girls and preventing them from producing the desired results.
Over the past decade and a half, Indian badminton has been elevated to new heights, with Nehwal and Sindhu bagging medals at the Olympics. Meanwhile, in men's singles competition, Kidambi Srikanth and Sai Praneeth have kept the Indian flag flying high. There are at least five other Indian players ranked in the top 50 in the men's singles.
However, in women's singles, it's a completely different scenario. There's no representation in the top 50 other than Nehwal and Sindhu. That's cause for concern for Badminton Association of India (BAI) officials and chief national coach Pullela Gopichand.
The difference between Saina-Sindhu and the others is so significant that experts have already predicted that there won't be anyone quite like them in Indian badminton for some time to come.
However, there is a beacon of light shining over the horizon in the form of Ashmita Chaliha, who is increasingly looking like the answer to the BAI and Gopichand's prayers. The 21-year-old from Assam has provided Indian badminton with a new ray of hope with her exceptional skills.
Ashmita Chaliha displayed glimpses of her extraordinary talent when the southpaw stretched Sindhu in the last Senior National Badminton Championship in 2019.
Playing in front of her home crowd, Ashmita Chaliha made Sindhu fight hard for every point during the women’s singles semifinals at the Tarun Ram Phookan Indoor Stadium in Guwahati.
Although she went down 10-21, 20-22, she put up a stellar show, particularly during a tense 38-minute battle in the second game.
The talented Guwahati lass was just a couple of points away from winning the second game and forcing the decider. But perhaps too much excitement got the better of her, as she squandered a crucial three-point lead and lost after saving one match point.
After the win over Ashmita, even Sindhu praised her fiesty young opponent and said:
“I have been seeing her (Ashmita Chaliha) for a long time. She has improved a lot and she has got some great strokes. If she works hard, she will definitely come up. She will do well in the future. It is a very good sign for Indian badminton. She will go places if she continues to improve in the years to come,”
After Sindhu and Saina, Ashmita Chaliha is the highest ranked Indian in the world
Although Ashmita Chaliha lost against Sindhu, she gained valuable experience from that encounter which helped her reach a career-best world ranking of No. 73 last year. After Sindhu (World No. 7) and Nehwal (World No. 19), she is the highest-ranked Indian in the BWF rankings.
Ashmita Chaliha won her maiden senior international title in Dubai in 2018, beating South Korea’s Jeon Jui 21-19, 21-15 in the final. That same year, she won the Tata Open in Mumbai, thumping Vrushali Gummadi 21-16, 21-13 in an all-Indian summit clash.
At the 2019 South Asian Games in Pokhara, Nepal, Ashmita Chaliha not only guided the Indian team to the yellow metal but she also captured the individual gold. Looking back on that achievement, she said:
“My best moment so far in my career was when I won my first senior international title in Dubai. It was very special. Winning the Tata Open and reaching the semi-final in Russia were also pretty satisfying moments. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
In July 2019, Ashmita reached the White Nights International Challenge semis before she was stopped by the top seed. World No. 21 Evgeniya Kosetskaya of Russia defeated Ashmita Chaliha 21-15, 21-15 in a well-contested outing. Ashmita was also part of the Indian squad during the last Asian Games in Indonesia.
When asked whether she could replace Saina or Sindhu in the future, Ashmita Chaliha did not commit herself but promised to do her best in the years to come. She said:
“I don’t know whether I can reach their high level. I would rather take it step by step. At the moment it is wrong to compare me with them. They have won so many titles and have been playing for a very long time. Because of COVID-19, the future is uncertain. I have not played any tournaments for more than a year now. But yes, my target is to do well and bring glory to the nation.”
Ashmita Chaliha has been training under Indonesian coach Edwin Iriawan at the Assam Badminton Association Academy. Having slipped down to No. 88 in the world rankings and expressing her desire to participate in international tournaments by August, she said:
“I will have to discuss with my coaches about the tournaments. I want to break into the top 50 ranking by the end of the year. If I manage to play six to seven tournaments, I can attain it. If everything goes well, I would definitely like to see myself in the pool of the world’s best players.”
Ashmita Chaliha has won three All India Senior Ranking tournaments. She benefited enormously from the presence of former Indian team coach. Iriawan, who joined Assam Badminton Academy in 2017 and prior to that, guided Nehwal when she won the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, said:
“Ashmita Chaliha is very talented and hard working. She needs to strengthen her legs to sustain the workload. She is energetic and always willing to go the distance. I have been helping her to improve her strokes. Ever since I have joined she has made a lot of progress but still a lot of work needs to be done. She certainly has a game to shine at the international level.”
The former Indonesian shuttler said he is optimistic about Ashmita Chaliha's future:
"Team work is important. Ashmita Chaliha needs support from all quarters to become the next Saina or Sindhu. Hard work from her, systematic planning and a good program of practice-tournaments will help her. The authorities need to set a goal for her. She has a chance to become the next Saina or Sindhu."