Playing the shuttle at the very last moment, and using the short-action with minimal backswing gives Tara Shah the air of deception on the court. Her coach in Denmark, a certain Peter Gade, was known for those split second twists of the wrist, and teenager Tara is hoping it forms the building block of her game too.
On Wednesday, besides that subtlety, Tara also showed an impressive fight in downing the tall and long-limbed Devika Sihag who herself can boast of some impressive aerial deception in the Krishna Khaitan Memorial U19 finals. Winning 12-21, 21-16, 21-17 after fighting back post some muddled tactics in the opener, the Pune teen though, announced her arrival on the Indian women’s singles scene.
India isn’t exactly bursting with talent in women’s singles, post PV Sindhu, who won her first World Championship bronze while still 18. But a bunch of juniors – Tasnim Mir, Unnati Hooda, Anupama Upadhyaya and now Sihag, due to transition into seniors in the next few years, are prepping for the big jump. “I started preparing for the transition two years back. I just know when I face the top names I won’t be scared of them,” Tara says, without making tall claims, in the absence of results in the seniors. She’s barely even played.
Moving to Denmark was a considered choice. “They treat children like children there and I don’t want to get injured by pushing the body too much at this stage,” she says, about not subscribing to the ‘no pain, no gain’ ethos in India. Wary of injuring her body, she prefers the slightly easy-going system of Denmark, which also means she’s not rushing the body conditioning for the desired physicality just yet. I’m still growing, and haven’t reached the adult years so I’ll give the body time to build,” she says.
It’s a contrarian way of going about things, though she finds opponents in India physically fitter and capable of playing longer rallies, though the pace of seniors will hit only when she regularly treads the seniors circuit. Still, Tara played remarkably well against the power-punching Anupama Upadhyaya in the semis.
She’s been in constant battles with Tasnim Mir, since her U10 years, and beat her at a junior ranking before losing the Asian juniors final to her. “Tasnim was way way better than me at the start and I always got thrashed by her in West zone tournaments. But I was just happy to make the final and win silver because the Asian juniors is the one tournament juniors in India aspire to play in. But it’s good to win Krishna Khaitan, my first title since the lockdown,” says the Pune youngster, who travels for month-long stints to Gade’s training facility. “Denmark can get cold, that’s it. Otherwise people are nice and polite,” she adds.
She’s beaten Upadhyaya often and holds a mental edge, but also lost a national final to her.
At home, she started under Hemant Hardikar, Pune’s renowned coach, who always stresses on his wards developing an independent thinking mind when playing. “He says the coach isn’t going to play the match for you. But I’ve always had confidence I can win,” she stresses.
Tara is tall and rangy at 5’7″, but her game can’t be boxed into a particular style. “Yea my coach doesn’t want it to be tied down to one style, though I think I’m aggressive,” she says.
In the final, Tara took her time to arrive at an optimal strategy, a tad distracted and nervy at the start. Sihag has a whiplash backhand drive from the backline, and some deliciously devious deception on her toss-drops. But Tara recovered well in the second and third, and won at the clutch where it came down to who’s fighting harder.
A lot of Tara’s personality is shaped by her maternal grandfather, a renowned environmentalist and scientist from Pune. “My family has no background in sport. But they have been hugely successful in their fields, and that gives me a broader worldview. My granddad is my favourite person, and he tells me a lot of things about ecology and travelling and biology, it’s just a different perspective. So I know there are other things in life beyond badminton,” the youngster says confidently.
Tara loves Math and Biology and Spanish, thanks to her mother Gauri who often travels with her. “We are just an overall happy family and we understand each other,” she says, adding she loves to read – a lot of non fiction too. “Everyone on the circuit will tell you I’m irritating. Because I always have my nose in books and never talk to anyone,” she says.
Her game might not have been fortified with power yet, but there’s a gutsy strain to her presence on court. “My grandfather is well known (for his environmental battles), but very down to earth. Very normal. What I’ve learnt from him is to think of nobody as so great,” she chuckles wryly. “That’s the Puneri quality in me. We fear no one,” she says. Will she beat the big names one day? “I’ll have to prepare. But I’m not scared,” she says.
Mixed doubles: Hari Bharathi B. (TN) / Dhanyaa N. (TN) bt Arulmurugan R. (TN)  /Srinidhi N. (TN) 21-16, 21-13; Boys Doubles: Nicholas Nathan Raj (KTK) / Tushar Suveer (KTK) bt Arsh Mohammad (UP) /Sanskar Saraswat (RAJ) 18-21, 21-14, 21-19; Girls Singles: Devika Sihag (HAR) lost to Tara Shah (MAH) 12-21, 21-16, 21-17; Girls Doubles: Shreya Balaji (TN) / Srinidhi N. (TN)bt Navya Kanderi (AP)  /Rakshitha Sree S. (TN) 21-19, 21-11. Boys singles: Sanskar Saraswat (RAJ)  lost to Bharat Raghav (HAR) 13-21, 21-7, 21-1