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Of the sportspersons who look promising as juniors, many fail—miserably—when it comes to the transition to the senior level. Cricket, of course, is a different story altogether. The support structure is such that hardly any junior talent is wasted. Even if a player does not make it to the senior Indian side, playing Ranji Trophy or the Indian Premier League (IPL) gives them a shot to earn a decent living. But that cannot be said of other disciplines.

The latest sensation to have made headlines is badminton player Aditya Joshi. Following a good run in 2013, the 17-year-old from Madhya Pradesh garnered enough ranking points to become the junior men’s world No.1, a first for India. His current senior men’s ranking is No.460 and he has a long way to go. The natural tendency would be to expect bigger things from him in the future. But this is not always possible.

There are any number of examples of junior stars who are yet to fulfil similar expectations in the senior ranks. Tennis player Yuki Bhambri became the Australian Open Junior champion in 2009. He is currently world No.172 in singles but to break into the top 100 will be quite a task. Bangalore’s S. Chikkarangappa created a sensation in the golf world as an amateur but he is yet to make it really big as a pro. Badminton player Chetan Anand, who became the world No.14 in 2008, was tipped to do much more. Perhaps it will be different for Unmukt Chand, who led India to the International Cricket Council (ICC) Under-19 World Cup title in 2012, or 14-year-old Prithvi Shaw, who smashed 546 runs in Mumbai’s inter-school Harris Shield tournament. These two certainly have a better chance of doing well at the senior level because of the support systems that cricket has created.

At the junior level, talent can see an athlete win laurels. But the senior category is different. U. Vimal Kumar, co-founder of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore, where Joshi trains regularly, explains the route he should take. “People tend to go over the moon with success. The (junior) players can’t handle it and they get carried away. The priority should not change. This is where good mentoring is needed because this is the beginning for Aditya," says Kumar.

Besides, the senior level is where sport gets highly scientific. Sadly, most Indian sports federations are way behind when it comes to helping junior champions make the shift to senior leagues. As a senior, most players need highly dedicated support staff and financial resources.

 “At the junior level, a player’s expenses are met by the concerned federation but as a senior, many are left to fend for themselves," says seven-time tennis national champion and 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games double gold medallist Gaurav Natekar, son of legendary shuttler Nandu Natekar. “Private funding happens more for events and less for athletes. A player needs a coach, physio, trainer, etc., but if one has to worry about funding to hire specialists, how can he/she concentrate on the game?"

 Pune-based Gaurav, who is also CEO of the Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academy, adds: “Till about 18 years of age, Indians do not differ much from the other races. Our natural flair and talent works. But after a particular age, physical build counts a lot. At the senior level, you need to have that special weapon to be a world-beater. Exceptions might be chess and golf."

Nandan Kamath, managing trustee of the GoSports Foundation that manages sportspersons like paralympic swimmer Sharath Gayakwad, feels the same: “The senior level is all about handling pressure, sporting science and going the last mile properly. Targets should be to stay competitive and not just win as many medals as possible. Does a 10-year-old, or the parents, want the child to be an under-19 champion or an Olympic champion? Being a champion at 16, 17 or 18 has incentives in the form of sports quota seats in colleges or jobs in the near future. But what incentive does a senior sportsperson have in India?

 Clearly, success at the junior level is only the beginning. Translating that success into bigger things is a challenging task. The perfect example would be Saina Nehwal, who has shaped her senior career well. Just like her, there must be many uncut gems in this vast country. It is up to us to see that they shine.

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