Between his two meetings against Frenchman Arnaud Merkle – last Wednesday at Delhi’s Super500 India Open and Saturday’s Syed Modi Super300 semifinal, Mithun Manjunath has had a lot of time to look back on his career. And to simultaneously live in the moment, with incessant Instagramming. He’s 23 and restless to get going.
Mithun reckons a “false positive” robbed him of an opportunity in Delhi while he was playing well, and as the only Indian left in men’s singles, he gets a chance to showcase his abilities at Lucknow. “I tested negative the next day,” he says, adding he spent the next few days quarantining in his Delhi hotel, “sleeping, stretching and on Instagram.”
Patience is a virtue, Mithun learnt painfully. In Bangalore’s colt badminton circles, Mithun was known as the kid with “the double action shots.” That’s fancy for deception – racquet face facing one way, shuttle sailing in another. “I had 2-3 double action shots at U10 level, because I had no strength or power. When I shifted academies (from Shivaprakash to Padukone), I completely stopped playing that game. I was getting no points on deception, so I started playing steady,” he recalls.
“I didn’t have even one All India title in my juniors. After the change, I’ve won 4,” he states. The first seniors ranking one came at Chandigarh when he had fever, and his best at Delhi, beating academy-mate Chirag Sen.
Mithun played a nerve-cracker against Malaysian Joo Ven Soong in Round 2, rallying to win 16-21, 21-16, 23-21. “Just a game without mistakes. Rally, rally, till I almost went blank, because shuttles are real slow,” he says. He trailed 15-19 in the decider, and then 19-20. “I decided ‘Never Give Up’. At 20-20 I got in two forehand serves because he was rushing on my backhand ones. My father always says – try something different.”
Against tall Russian Sergey Sirant on Friday, Mithun played it very steady, winning 11-21, 21-12, 21-18 – again trailing 9-14 in decider, before he amped up his aggression. Sirant has a wicked power hit. Mithun soaked it in, before countering him.
Veg to non-veg
Mithun has countless memories of falling back in his childhood, after learning badminton watching his mother and father play on a makeshift road-turned-court. “I picked up very fast, but I had no strength and no energy. I was very thin,” he recalls. “No non-veg, na?” he explains.
Mithun’s leap into meat-eating was one full-blown drama. “For starters, I used to keep looking back at my parents whenever I lost points and start crying,” he remembers. Coaches were vexed, and urged him to increase protein uptake, and not train for a week, unable to handle his hysterics. “My parents also understood I needed non-veg but I was resistant. Though I knew just dosa everyday won’t take me anywhere,” he recalls.
“Two days I refused to eat completely; coaches asked me ‘why are you playing?’ because my game had no power,” he remembers. He would take the plunge into a nice chunky biryani at Kochi. “Coach ordered “andaa biryani”. I didn’t know Hindi, I argued that at best I’d eat ‘egg biryani’. I still don’t like egg,” he says. But he was on his way. “First I started drinking paaya soup which I brought home in bottles. Then I really started liking mutton leg and chicken kebabs,” he adds. “My parents began ordering KFC for me,” he says, adding, “now I don’t like veg much.”
Food travails apart, Mithun learnt the length game at PPBA. “I learnt patience for the first time. I used to lose points on deception in U15 and U17. Always only quarters and pre-quarters,” he says. With steadiness rolled in semis, finals and titles.
The French hiss
On Saturday, playing his biggest semi against an opponent who beat him at Welsh Open, Mithun is attempting to not just win the rematch from Delhi, but solve a bigger puzzle.
The crowding of badminton draws with French players isn’t surprising given Paris hosts 2024 Games. The French- two of the four at Syed Modi – bring the muscle to the court, and a Gallic bustle. “They’re very big built. And good at the parallel fast game,” Mithun describes. The box game is central to doubles play, and the whole crop of Frenchmen have been dragging the fast flurries from paired event into singles play.
Mithun will need to be disciplined in his length, and knows any short lift will be punished. Making Arnaud Merkle run will be the plan, but the Frenchman proved a handful for HS Prannoy and will test Mithun. Tactically, the unheralded Indian will be needed to be spot-on, for the French don’t miss much.