Dec 26, 2008

Sports - India;Faces of the future

Aabhas Sharma

Aabhas Sharma profiles some incredibly talented teens being touted as the future of Indian sports.

At 18, Saina Nehwal is one of the hottest prospects in the world of badminton. Cricket-obsessed India has finally discovered her — and others have stopped confusing her with Sania Mirza! She is relieved.

As a kid, Virdhawal Khade didn’t quite like to swim. At 17, he is a freestyle champ, who has already broken several world records.

Dipika Pallikal’s grandmother discouraged her from playing tennis, saying that staying out in the sun would spoil her complexion. Pallikal took up squash instead and has stuck to it despite film offers.

Kyra Shroff is being christened the “next big thing” in Indian tennis. She is still in high school and suffers from juvenile diabetes — a condition that she is equally determined to beat.

Nineteen-year-old Armaan Ebrahim is being talked about as the next Indian to make the cut in Formula One racing. It will be tricky terrain, he knows.

Don’t worry if you are not quite familiar with these incredible teenagers. But be sure to make your acquaintance now. They, after all, represent hope for our sporting future. Their names are being brandished around in the often inexplicable, but always competitive world of Indian sports.

Give them a year or more, it is being said, and you will find them becoming household names; perhaps even Indian icons, if they live up to their initial promise. Exit the old guard, the young stars are on the rise.

In a country where the sporting pie is devoured by just one sport, to say that it is difficult for a non-cricketing sportsperson to catch national attention is an understatement. Yet, post-Beijing, a beginning seems to have been made. Shooter Abhinav Bindra and boxer Vijender Kumar, for instance, are now names that even kids in playgrounds recognise.

A result of such recognition is also brand endorsements coming their way — no mean measure of success and pop appeal. Now, a more involved nation looks forward to both the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, in 2010, and the Olympics in London, in 2012. And it is here, on such global platforms — and others — that our future stars must shine bright.

Seventeen-year-old Virdhawal Khade already knows what it means to represent the country at the biggest of stages. Often described as a prodigy, Khade became the youngest Indian Olympian ever when he made it to the Beijing squad. But that wasn’t his first achievement: At 15, he became the fastest swimmer in the world in his category (freestyle swimming).

And at 16, he broke two world records. Even after coming back from Beijing, he set the pool on fire at the Youth Commonwealth Games in Pune, where he set a world record by clocking 49.47 seconds in the 100-m freestyle category.

But achievements sit lightly on this over-six-feet tall and utterly confident class XI student. He’ll tell you, with a touch of a humility, that “just to be a part of the (Olympics) contingent was brilliant and the experience made me a better competitor.” Khade is careful of not taking his success for granted. “The start of my career has been good, in fact, beyond expectations. But, I know, I haven’t achieved anything yet,” he reiterates.

He now has his eyes set firmly on the Commonwealth Games. He trains for at least nine hours a day: three each in the morning and evening, the rest spent gyming. “My aim is to continue working hard, hopefully, the results will follow,” he says.

Interestingly, Khade hated swimming when his parents first enrolled him for lessons in Kolhapur, where the family stays. However, he not only continued but, with their encouragement, made it to the global stage. He admits to missing out on a more “normal” school-life, but hastens to add that “this is a path I chose for myself and I am happy to tread on it.”

So, what’s been the defining moment of his life? I ask. “None so far,” he says with a grin, “I’m still only 17!”

If scooping up records and wins means anything, the young champs have lived through several big moments already. Take someone like Saina Nehwal. The badminton star’s achievements today probably outdo those of any other sports- person in the country.

Yet, Nehwal recalls how the beginning of her career was full of challenges: She would get up early in the morning, travel more than 20 km every day to practice for two hours, before heading to school. It was a regimen she didn’t enjoy, she says candidly. Her parents too had to make sacrifices, especially her father,

Dr Harvir Singh, who would take her to practice sessions every day. “But it has been worth it,” says Dr Singh, a scientist at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research, Hyderabad, who also had to endure financial difficulties in those initial years but is now excited about his daughter’s progress.

Nehwal, in fact, comes across as extremely level-headed for an 18-year-old. She knows that she might not be the flavour when it comes to the so-called glam world of sports. She may not have endorsers queuing up either but prefers to remain out of spotlight.

“If I continue to perform on the international stage, it will be my biggest reward,” she says. Did comparisons with Sania Mirza ever bother her? No, she says, not at all. In fact, while Mirza’s career seems to have nosedived, Nehwal is wary of the pitfalls of early success and accompanying burn-out. She admits that everything in her life has happened far too quickly.

“But I have worked really hard for it and I am not at all satisfied with my achievements.” Her coach Gopichand, the former All England Open champion and a revered figure in Indian sports, reiterates, “She is one of the most talented players I have come across. She works extremely hard to maintain her consistency.”

It was in 2006, when the world sat up and took note of Nehwal’s performance. She had just won the Philippines Open and became the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championship soon after. This year, she was named the Most Promising Player in the world by the Badminton World Federation — and continues to show a hunger for more accolades.

A typical day in her life consists of six-eight hours of training and working out in the gym. At 18, there are chances that she feels left-out of things people her age do. “Of course, there are times when you want to go out and do regular teenage stuff,” she says, “but then, there is no bigger high than winning something for the country.” Touche.

Dipika Pallikal burst on the scene by winning the Asian Junior Squash title at the age of 13 in 2005. Since then, she has been climbing higher mountains and has become the second woman, after Joshna Chinappa, to break into the world’s top 50.

She has won the German, Dutch, French and Scottish Opens at the junior level, and is aiming at the senior-level now: “I realise how much hard work lies ahead. But if I continue to work hard and stay injury-free, I am hopeful of doing even better,” she says.

Pallikal comes from what she calls a “hardcore sporting family”. Her mother represented India in cricket and her grandfather was a national-level basketball player. Squash happened quite by chance.

Pallikal started out playing tennis but her grandmother felt that playing in the sun wouldn’t be good for her complexion. “So I took up squash instead,” she laughs. And found her calling.

Ask her about any apprehensions she or her family may have had about a career in sport and the answer is a determined “never”. “Never did I think of doing anything else,” she says. A class XI student of Lady Andal School in Chennai, Pallikal was, in fact, even offered a Tamil movie when she was 15. Luckily she wanted to concentrate on just squash.

Then there is Kyra Shroff. It seems like a lifetime ago when Sania Mirza dazzled everyone with her forehand. Many now see her as the “last” genuine non-cricketing icon in India. At 15, Kyra Shroff, wants to take on that mantle. Coaches at the Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academy in Bangalore have been watching her closely ever since she first picked up the racket as a 10-year-old, knowing that they have something special on their hands.

Shroff’s talent couldn’t be stemmed even after she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when she was just 12. Today, she needs to take insulin doses four times a day, and, yet, feels determined to not let that affect either her spirit or her growth as a player. “It will not be easy. But in sports, nothing is easy,” she says, a little too philosophically for her age.

Shroff clearly loves challenges —even if that means serving out aces on court after getting shots in her arm. But then, her aim is to break into the world top 100 even before she gets eligible for a drivers’ licence back home. Her father, Firdaus Shroff, who himself played semi-professional cricket in England, feels that her medical condition does have an impact on her but that “she is so determined to succeed that it just keeps her going.”

Like Shroff another determined champion-in-the-making is Armaan Ebrahim, the second driver for Team India in A1 GP (along with Narain Karthikeyan). Like all his young but philosophical colleagues, Ebrahim agrees that each day is “an amazing learning experience”. That may be true for all of us but certainly for someone living on the edge constantly, thriving on the adrenalin rush.

Cars and speed have always enthralled Ebrahim and he says that he “always” knew that this was the only thing he wanted to do. He is aware of how limited opportunities are in the world of motorsports — not the least because his father too was a national rallying champion in the days when there was even less going for it. Yet, he says, “I am keen to grab them with both hands.” Ebrahim’s performances have landed him a contract as a driver in the Formula Two season in 2009.

Whether or not they go on to find wider recognition and fame (and money) in their chosen paths, all these youngsters are eager to put in their best. Do they feel let-down by the lack of recognition sometimes? “It doesn’t bother me too much,” Khade replies, “but to be honest, getting mobbed once in a while won’t be too bad.”

Whether or not that happens, one thing is sure that these young and extremely talented teens represent the future of Indian sports. While personal sacrifices have been made to enable them to live their grand dreams, there have been no regrets so far.
* First Indian to break into the world top 10
* Voted Most Promising Player (of the world) in 2008
* World junior champion
* Winner of the Chinese and Philippines Opens
* Record-holder in 50 m and
* 100 m freestyle categories
* Youngest Indian to qualify for the Olympics
* Dubbed the fastest in the world at the age of 15
* Ranked number 2 in India, u-18
* Silver medallist at the Youth Commonwealth Games
* Broke into the world’s top 50
* Junior French and Scottish Opens champion
* National junior champion
* A1 Team India driver
* First Asian to race in Formula 2
* National karting champion

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