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London 2012: Self-belief breathes new life into Kashyap

Watching Parupalli Kashyap toppling Chinese heavy-hitter Chen Long in the Indonesia Open recently, it’s hard to remember that a year ago he was in deep personal crisis.

Haunted by his elder sister’s death and with his career nearly derailed by injury, Kashyap struggled to keep his Olympic ambitions on track. He was falling behind in the race against compatriot Ajay Jayaram for the sole Olympic spot; it finally played out in a couple of tense matches at the India Open in April where he finally secured his berth.

This 25-year-old has never been a stranger to adversity. As a child he was afflicted by severe breathing difficulties.

“It used to be very bad,” recalled the Bangalore native who enrolled in Prakash Padukone’s Badminton Academy as a child.  “I was sick at every tournament. I had to keep taking antibiotics.”

It would be sometime before he was diagnosed as asthmatic after a series of tests. Since then, medication has been a constant companion.

Over the last two years, Kashyap has played brilliantly at times – his victims include top-ten players like Lee Hyun Il and Nguyen Tien Minh. He has also pushed players like Lin Dan, Taufik Hidayat and Chen Jin to three games – but his good work has been frustratingly undone by inconsistency and injury. From a world ranking of 22 last October, he slid to 31 in March this year and looked in danger of missing the Olympics. The India Open – his last hope of Olympic qualification – saved him. The venue, Siri Fort Complex, where he had won a Commonwealth Games medal in 2010, was again his lucky charm. Having beaten Thai veteran Boonsak Ponsana from match point down, he secured an Olympic place when his next opponent, Chen Jin, withdrew.

To his credit, Kashyap has not allowed his momentum to wane. In Indonesia he astutely executed a specific game plan against Chen Long, luring the Chinese world No.3 into the sort of match he did not relish. 

“It’s my best win by far,” affirmed Kashyap. “Chen is very intimidating. He is strongly built, and his game is very physical. He’s is very steady at his game, no unforced errors. My strength is the net and my hit. You need to stick with him during the rallies. I was able to catch him at the net and even hit through him – that unsettled him, because he was unused to it.”

Having come through a dark period, he looks forward to playing without any inhibitions in London. There is no pressure and he acknowledges as much.

“There’s not much on my mind (about the Olympics). I’m an underdog. Chen Long is one of the toughest players and to beat him in straight games…I felt very happy. It gives me a lot of confidence for the Olympics.”

Reflecting on the challenges he has faced, Kashyap points to the transformation in his badminton career since changing his medication. He blossomed from a short, scrawny boy into a muscular teenager whose game took on the attacking edge for which his coach, Pullela Gopichand, is renowned. It has been a steady rise since 2005 to Kashyap’s current singles ranking of 33.

“Before 2005, nobody told me my condition was asthma,” he disclosed. “But once it was diagnosed and I started using the right medication, my strength grew quickly. I could eat well and I got healthy. I’m still asthmatic and I take medication once a day, but I’m fine otherwise.”

“Asthmatics have to keep on working on endurance. You can’t build it up and stop working on it. My endurance goes down if I don’t work on it. So I do endurance workouts even during tournaments, when other players don’t.”

Top seeds beware: here comes a fit and fighting Parupalli Kashyap – ready for the London Olympics!

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