Having already cleared the first two rounds, Sankar Muthusamy was ready to play his pre-quarterfinal at the $25,000 India International Challenge in Bengaluru earlier this month.
Not picked for the BWF World Junior Mixed Team Championships in Santander, Spain, for leaving the junior national camp midway to play in Bengaluru, the former world No 1 was quite sure he would not be selected for the individual World Junior Championships either.
But Badminton Association of India (BAI) had a surprise in store. The national body gave the green signal to the Chennai shuttler to play at the World Junior Championships a week later at the same venue.
“He got to know two days before the World Junior Championships that he has been selected for the event. He immediately decided to go for it,” Sankar’s sister Priyanka said from Chennai.
The 18-year-old scrambled to get ready for travel, giving a walkover to Meiraba Luwang Maisnam at the India International Challenge.
Less than a week later, the 18-year-old is the only Indian alive in the tournament, and has also ensured a medal at the World Junior Championships by reaching the semi-finals on Friday.
A product of the Chennai-based Fireball Badminton Academy, Sankar defeated Chinese Hu Zhe An 21-18, 8-21, 21-16 in a marathon contest that lasted an hour and 31 minutes at the Palacio de Deportes de Santander to enter the last four.
The Chinese looked confident after winning the second game and took a 6-4 lead in the decider before Sankar relied on his superior defence to first clinch six points in a row and then raced to a 19-11 lead.
Sankar probably took his foot off the pedal thereafter but the lead was too big for Hu to cover and the Indian converted his second match point.
“It was quite tough,” said Sankar after the match. “In the second game, I was not in a good patch initially, so I slowed it down in the second since he was getting tired. Towards the middle of the third game his tiredness started showing and that was a boost for me. I’m fine for tomorrow’s match. I’m used to training for such long matches as I’m a defensive player, but I’ve also been trying to attack more.”
U Vimal Kumar, former chief national coach and current selection committee member, said Sankar’s consistency stands him in good stead.
“He has been a world No 1 but this is quite a creditable achievement, beating the Chinese player to reach the semi-finals. He has been performing well. Even in the senior ranking tournaments, he beat some of the older players. He needs to develop more strength and power but at the moment he is very consistent and can retrieve well,” said Vimal Kumar.
The son of Subramanian, a retired Chennai Port Trust official, and his housewife Rani, Sankar started playing badminton at the age of six under Aravind Samiappan at the Fireball Badminton Academy. After a few years, he started winning tournaments at the domestic level and then at internationally too.
The junior world No 4 ensured India of its 10th medal at the World Junior Championships and first since 2018. Before this edition, India had won one gold, three silver and five bronze medals at the event.
Saina Nehwal, in 2008, is the only Indian to win the World Junior Championships. Aparna Popat was the first Indian to claim a medal at the event when she returned with a silver in the 1996 edition before Saina’s silver in 2006. Siril Verma was the last Indian to reach the final, winning a silver in 2015.
RMV Gurusaidutt (2008), HS Prannoy, B Sai Praneeth (both 2010), Sameer Verma (2011) and Lakshya Sen (2018) have claimed bronze.
The colour of fourth seed Sankar’s medal could change depending on the result of semi-final against Thailand’s Panitchaphon Teeraratsakul on Saturday.