It’s almost as if he sneaked up on court when everyone was looking the other way. But one glance at his shot-making and you know that Ajay Jayaram has worked hard to get here.
The 23-year-old made a great debut at the World Championships in London in August, toppling a higher-ranked opponent in the tournament. He shocked 15th seeded Kenichi Tago in the first round and gave sixth-seeded Jin Chen a run for his money in the round of 16 before bowing out. A good show at the Yonex-Sunrise Vietnam Open Grand Prix around a week later, where he reached the semi-finals, and Jayaram seems to be hitting all the right notes.
In focus: Ajay Jayaram was scheduled to play Vietnam’s Tien Minh Nguyen in the Japan Open late on Wednesday night. Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP
Validation also comes from a career-best ranking of 25, which he achieved earlier this month and has maintained since.
“He is a good player, and has had a great year with some memorable wins. Ajay has the potential to be even better. I am sure he will achieve it in the next few months,” says former All England champion Pullela Gopi Chand.
It’s surely a bumpy road ahead. Jayaram is not only snapping at the heels of India’s highest-ranked player Parupalli Kashyap (ranked two places higher), but is also racing against his compatriot for a spot in the London Olympics next year. “Ranking is important but the focus shouldn’t be on ranking or competing with Kashyap,” said Jayaram, before leaving for Tokyo for the Yonex Open Japan Super Series event which started on Tuesday. “I am looking at performing well at big tournaments like the Super Series events. I have shown that I am capable of beating top players. So now I am aiming at those victories consistently. The ranking will take care of itself. The first phase is the qualification for the London Olympics. That in itself is a race,” added Jayaram.
The comparisons though are hard to ignore. “Ajay is unorthodox, depending on an attacking game,” says Gopi Chand. “He picks good angles from different corners, making him an effective all-court player. Kashyap has a more all-round game but falters on the mental side. He has struggled more in close matches.”
Prakash Padukone, whose academy in Bangalore Jayaram earlier trained in, says it will be a close contest between the two. “At this stage, even though there are others closing in, it does look like either Ajay or Kashyap would get that (Olympic) berth. The one who remains injury-free, focused and more consistent will be on top at the end of the year.”
Jayaram’s father encouraged him to play the sport, and what began as a compulsion soon grew into an obsession. Jayaram willingly admits that without one man, his coach Tom John, this obsession would have been no fun. “He has brought a lot of change in my game. My approach itself is different now. He will push you, shout at you, abuse you and he really gets the best out of you. That’s his quality and it is working for me,” says Jayaram, smiling.
Former Portuguese national coach John was sold on the prospect of dedicating himself to the shy 22-year-old when he first saw Jayaram last year. “I spotted Ajay in Bangalore with many other players and he was in the bottom of the lot. I told him to train with me. I believed in him; he has taken that decision and that’s why we are sticking together,” says John.
Eccentric, stern and aggressive, John proved to be the perfect foil to the quiet ambition in Jayaram. He trained under his new coach in Portugal for three months in 2010 and constantly played tournaments during that time. Earlier this year, he started closing in on the big guys. He battled hard at the SCG Thailand Open Grand Prix against current world No. 6 Jin Chen (then ranked No. 4) in early June and then lost to former All England champion Muhammad Hafiz Hashim in three games at the Li Ning Singapore Open a few days later. It was no surprise then that in the space of a year, Jayaram went from languishing in the 60s to No. 25 in the world.
“Ajay is a talented player, but he lacked confidence. Playing abroad has given him the exposure that he needed and that has made him the more confident player that he is now,” says Padukone, the first Indian to win the prestigious All England Championships.
It took some time for that self-belief to slip into place. John, who truly believes a coach should be a father figure, had a plan in place to prepare Jayaram. “He plays more shots now than he used to and he is more difficult to read. If you are predictable in any sport, it is easy for your opponent to understand you. If you have a lot of variation, then you can confuse your opponent and that is the big change we are working towards,” says John.
The biggest change, though, has come from within. Jayaram has been able to work on his temperament, which many saw as a weakness in his initial years. “I want to make him an aggressive individual, not a nice boy. Nice people don’t win. You have to be mean and a street fighter,” says John, laughing.
“We wouldn’t be going through all the tough training if we did not believe that he is capable of winning an Olympic medal. When the Olympics comes, everything changes and how well you are playing a month before that matters,” John says. “He has largely played well against top players, so the pressure will be on them to perform. Anything is possible if you believe you can do it.”
Gopi Chand believes that there isn’t a huge gap between Jayaram and his higher-ranked opponents. “It is all about self-belief,” Gopi Chand says. “If he can convert those tough close games into victory, the next ones will come more easily.”
Rupha Ramani is a senior sports correspondent, CNN-IBN.
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