It was the summer of 2012, and Saina Nehwal had become the first Indian shuttler to lay her hands on the coveted bronze medal at London Olympics. Soon after, there was a horde to identify the next big thing in the sport and luckily the country witnessed the emergence of PV Sindhu.
At 16, playing in the main draw of the China Open, the Hyderabadi beat London gold medalist Li Xuerui 21–19, 9–21, 21–16 and rose to uncharted heights. Sindhu responded to the wish of a billion Indians -- of seeing another badminton champion of Nehwal's class -- in sublime fashion as her career maintained a steep upward trajectory in the years to come. She went on to win two consecutive World Championship bronze medals -- in 2013 and 2014 -- and then later bagged a silver at the Rio Olympics. After this feat of hers, the level of expectations of the fans across the country had not only risen many-fold, with everyone expecting gold in Tokyo but silently, one and all wanted to see India become a powerhouse in women's singles at least, producing champion shuttlers in bulk, something like China or Japan does.
Along with Saina and Sindhu, two other shuttlers -- Rituparna Das and G Ruthvika were seen as the ones for the future. But the duo, after showing a lot of promise, faded away due to untimely injuries, which yet again started the tedious process of identifying the worthy successor of the two badminton legends of the country. Since then no other player, in the last three-four years had come close to ending that hunt. But if the recent Thomas and Uber Cup is anything to go by, a new champion might just be in the making.
All of 16, hailing from Mehsana, Gujarat, Tasnim Mir's stocks have risen rapidly in the last few weeks, after her performance at the Uber Cup. Her rise, fair to say, has coincided with that of IRCTC in the stock market, which is up by 20% in a span of 14 days. While there are numerous factors for the surge in IRCTC, there is only one in Tasnim's case -- her unmatched talent. The teenage sensation who trains in Guwahati with Indonesian coach Edwin Iriawan, defeated Scottish Lauren Middleton 21-15, 21-6, and gave world no. 32 Thailand's Supanida Katethong, a run for her money.
The young Indian player was quick on her feet, attacked the net well, and smashed with brute force. But that is not what separates her from other upcoming Indian players; it is the awareness about her game that puts her on top of the pile. Not really happy with the loss in the match against the Thai girl, which perhaps made us all notice her game, Tasnim knows where she lacked in the match. "I think I could have won against the Thailand player, but due to lack of preparation maybe, my stamina was not enough and I faltered. There were a few unforced errors too on my part. To be honest, I lost my focus, and that cost me the match," Tasnim told SportsCafe, while analyzing her performance during the Uber Cup, in an exclusive interaction.
The team that consisted of Saina, Malvika Bansod, and Aditi Bhatt, Tasnim was not even expected to play and could have been in Denmark for an exposure trip. But to go out there rather under-prepared, in front of a hostile crowd, and yet show what one is capable of, is only praiseworthy. "It was the biggest tournament of my career so far. The most important thing was that I got a chance to play against some of the top players, and be with some of them during the tournament. Apart from that, it was the biggest arena I have ever played in, so that was new for me, in front of a very big crowd, which wasn't supporting me.
"I see this as a step.. that I can beat the best in the business. Of course, I won a match, but there are certain things that I need to improve upon, to be able to beat the top players consistently," she added.
The former world no.4 in junior rankings, Tasnim is no one tournament wonder. A badminton prodigy in her own right, in March 2020, she had won a bronze at the Dutch Junior International tournament, while in 2018, she had clinched the under-15 and under-17 singles titles at the Nationals. In 2017, at the age of 12, she was a part of team Ahmedabad Smash Masters in the Premier Badminton League and rubbed shoulders with the world no.1 Tai Tzu-ying. And it is from there that she learned the art of deceptive shots, which she put to good use at the Uber Cup.
"Aggression is my natural style of play, and about deception, I picked it from Tai Tzu-ying, by seeing her play. I mean, she is a magician on the court and you feel like playing like her. We did manage to spend some time together at Ahmedabad Smash Masters, and I watched her train a bit. But ya, since she doesn't talk much, I couldn't get any tips from her. The thing about Tai Tzu is, that she doesn't even need to communicate with younger players, and yet manages to impart some tips. Also, what I did learn from her is that she preserves her energy, and just gives it her all on the court," an excited Tasnim explained on being asked about Tai.
But of all the qualities Tasnim has, the one that stands out is her will to be the face of Indian badminton someday. Ask her coach, and the preparations for the 2024 Paris Olympics are in full swing. "She could be one of the top players from the country and has all the pre-requisites to become a champion. In 2024, although we do not promise, we want to win a medal in the singles," coach Iriawan said.
"In order to do that, she has to compete with the best in India and then the world. If she can prove herself in the country itself, that'll be a huge boost for her. I do have a vision for her, and she, hopefully, should be the next big thing. Those are all long-term targets though."
Having trained Saina during the 2012 campaign, Iriawan knows exactly where his ward stands currently, and the potential she has. But to help her get to her goals, he wants Tasnim in peak physical condition, and most importantly, have the belief in her, to become a champ.
"We had certain goals in mind for the Uber Cup, she did play well, but she is a work in progress. I think we have a few areas that we are looking to work on. First of all, that belief needs to be instilled in her that she can be the best in the world. It is all about the trust a coach and player show in each other, so that takes time. Then we have to make specialised programs for her which would help her in the long run.
"Also, now that she has entered the world of seniors, the first thing we need to work on with Tasnim is her fitness. Like, for now, she can do well in a match or two, at the senior level tournament, but to win the competition, you need to have paramount fitness," Iriawan concluded.