Arjun’s journey: From struggle to find doubles partner to pulling off an upset at World Championships

Back at Ernakulam Rajiv Gandhi stadium, where the city’s best shuttlers assemble to worship the fine art of Badminton doubles, they solemnly attempt the ‘MR Arjun move.’ “The body swivels in a certain direction that makes opponents think I’ll hit straight. Even from the side, you’ll think I’m going down the line,” he chuckles and explains his signature move. But then the wrist and the rest of the body pull off a deceptive backhand shot that flies wildly cross.

“It’s from my junior days. I used it today,” he gloated after the Indian No 35 pair of Dhruv Kapila and Arjun shocked 8th seeds Kim Astrup and Anders Rasmussen to move into Round 3 of World Championships. Arjun trained for two years under India’s former Thomas Cup regular, Sanave Thomas, and grew up to like doubles watching a rich lineage of doubles specialists, Jaseel Ismail, Rupesh Kumar and Marcose Bristow plus V Diju, nurture the discipline. “I always liked doubles because I enjoyed the process of improving, and the hard work like Sanave sir,” he recalled, soon after the Indians secured their first-ever win over a Top 10 pair.

The Danes are defensively one of the strongest pairings, but in Mathias Boe, the Indians had a coach who broke down the strategy for them into the simplest instruction – to sit on the shuttle, that is to always and anyhow get it back to the other side. Skill and style needn’t be summoned to get the job on the day done.

“Mathias told us there’s no need to look for quality strokes like beautiful dips etc. Just be ready for everything on the racquet and send it right back,” he says. In the middle of that, he squeezed in his MR Arjun-move and was pretty pleased with himself. What Boe meant was the shuttle wasn’t going to go wandering to the far lines or corners; it would be a funnelled exchange around the centre of the court, and the Indians had to sit tight, keep on keeping on and the errors would pile up nicely.

It’s exactly what happened – Boe had been Kim’s partner once, and knew the drill. For Arjun, it was about ensuring he and Dhruv followed the plan. Accompanying his father, a Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore employee, to a recreational club at Udyogamandal, Kochi, Arjun had fallen in love with the sport. His mother was a teacher, and till Class 12, the tyranny of being good at studies (“couldn’t afford to be bad with a smart brother”) meant constant doubts from family and relatives about why he was wasting time at badminton. “Even today, the biggest day for my parents was when I got an Indian Oil job.

As a junior you don’t realise, but in seniors, it hits you how tough it was for parents to make financial sacrifices. My father travelled to tournaments with me, on leave without pay. It was tough,” he recalls. Having partnered Chirag Shetty before and later watching Shlok Ramachandran take the tough call on leaving sport to take up a “proper job”, Arjun reckoned his badminton struggles though frustrating, paled in front of financial hardships. Still, he had struggled to get a partnership going for two years at Hyderabad after moving there at 18. “It wasn’t clicking, plus moving away from home was tough. Language, food, I even discussed moving back with my parents,” he says.

When Indonesian coach Flandy Limpele paired him with Dhruv, things began falling into place. “I had been that junior player who got irritated if I missed a practice session. At Ernakulam, I would get up at 5 am and cycle to the academy even in heavy rains. My mother was convinced only when she saw how hard I worked. Today, after this win, all those tough days seem worth it,” he adds.

The Indian pairing had struggled through the last season though, falling at the finish. “Too many 23-21 situations and losses. We would be disappointed on that day, but those defeats forced us to work harder,” Arjun would say. The pairing hasn’t always been dependable, but with confidence they can unleash a fast-paced skilled doubles game. Dhruv is an astute reader of the game from the back, and Arjun is always teeming with trickery and a healthy appetite for combative exchanges.

“Sometimes Dhruv gets frustrated and loses it. I tell him to keep emotions in check. But our communication is excellent,” he says. Satwik-Chirag are slightly more polished in tactics and well ahead of the curve, and with better temperament. But India could soon see a second pairing taking the step up.

While doubles badminton is his first love, watching football is a close second. “I watch it 24×7, and on all weekends. I’m a Barca fan but they aren’t doing too well so not watching them,” he says, toggling Premiership games with Manifest on Netflix these days.

Arjun-Dhruv play Singaporeans Loh-Terry next and will need more than pinpoint strategy against the quick opponents who caused an upset of their own, evicting Malaysians Ong-Teo. It’s been an unexpected surge for the Indians, though Arjun and Dhruv reckon it’s always been in the offing. The swivel move now has a hint of swag.

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