Ashmita Chaliha's go-to motivational hack in moments of doubt is re-watching a Lee Chong Wei vs. Kento Momota match. She also throws in her favorite women's player and fellow lefty Carolina Marin into the watch list. Ashmita has had to fall back on the three often over the last two years. After coronavirus struck and tournaments dried up just when she was being talked up as the most promising emerging women's singles player, the 22 year-old Indian saw a clutch of crucial years go up in smoke. On Tuesday, she ground her wait for a competition into an upset win over world no. 28 Evgeniya Kosetskaya, seeded fifth at this week's India Open. The last time they played each other, Ashmita had lost in straight games.
Outside the country's top two names - PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, there's a gaping void in women's singles. Ashmita, ranked 84 in the world, has been among the brightest hopes on the horizon for a couple of years now. A leftie with a bag of attacking shots, tricky deceptions and quick approaches to the net, she draws her movements and speed partly from training at the Kanaklata Indoor stadium in Guwahati that teems with boys.
When she took up badminton at age six, switching from playing tennis at the district level, it was more for reasons of convenience than preference. It came at a time when the tennis courts she frequented had shut down for renovation and as destiny would have it, she found a badminton stadium in the vicinity of her home. Regular sparring with the opposite gender, she jokes, may have rubbed off on a little more than just her game. "The way I dress is not very girly," laughs Ashmita, "When I started playing badminton, there were very few girls in the sport in Assam. But things are slowly changing, and now there are more girls in the junior section. That's a good thing."
In August 2018, a picture widely shared across Assam's social media platforms featured its five young female athletes dressed in midnight blue blazers in Jakarta, the state's highest-ever representation at the Asian Games. Ashmita was one of them. The others were Hima Das (Athletics), Pramila Daimary (archery), Kabita Devi (Fencing) and Rodali Barua (Taekwondo). Boxer Shiva Thapa was the only male athlete member of the state's contingent.
Ashmita had won the All India senior ranking tournament in Hyderabad prior to it, making the Asian Games squad alongside Sindhu and Saina. "It was the first time I could watch so many matches of all the top names right there in front of me and even practice with them," she says.
The burden of promise can be a weighty one and Ashmita has been expected to come good for some time now. In 2019, she ran Sindhu close in the second game at the Nationals in Guwahati. Former world no. 1 Morten Frost, who was in attendance at the tournament in Assam, gushed in private to fellow coaches about her talent and wagered on its ability to carry her through in the rankings.
"I'm aware of what people expect of me...becoming the next Saina or Sindhu I guess...I still have a long way...Age wise too maybe...I'd like to be true to myself. Though I did lose a lot of time to the lockdown and there are days when I feel low. That's when I'm most glad to have my coach and sister around. Coach pushes me and my sister really knows the right things to say. Sometimes she just puts together a playlist that I can listen to during training. I come back feeling a lot different. In recent years, I know I've put in a lot of hard work than I ever did before. I need to play more international tournaments now and get into the top 30."
Her coach, Indonesian Edwin Iriawan, has been in India for eight years now. Formerly part of Saina Nehwal's coaching team for four years, including an Olympic bronze in 2012 in London, he's been working for the Assam Badminton academy, where Ashmita trains. Iriawan describes his Hindi skills, with the trusted 'thoda thoda' refrain most non-speakers of the language in India fall back on. "When we started working together, our goal was Paris 2024 and we had broken up our path to it into mini-targets," he says, "The pandemic robbed us of crucial time and tournaments and like everyone else we shifted our sessions to Zoom when things closed down. Now, we can't afford to miss out on any more tournaments. The only thing I ask of her always is that she give her 100 per cent. She needs to do it more consistently."