Teamwork makes the dream work

Teenagers Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand have enjoyed a stunning rise in women’s doubles after joining forces on a badminton court last year. What does the future hold for them?

Teenagers Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand have enjoyed a stunning rise in women’s doubles after joining forces on a badminton court last year. What does the future hold for them?

Her father Jolly Mathew was a volleyball coach but Treesa Jolly realised that she and older sister Maria were not made for spiking or blocking.

“We were not tall enough, so we tried badminton. In our village [Pulingome in Kannur near the Kerala-Karnataka border], nobody was interested in playing badminton,” said Treesa.

“So dad made a court outside our house, and when it rained he made a roof with a tarpaulin sheet.”

Treesa started whacking shuttle birds at six. Mathew trained her for six years before sending her to coach Anil Ramachandran because he felt she needed an upgrade.

Treesa was a smashing success in Kerala and many felt she would make it big. But there were some twists and turns.

“In singles, I had good performances at the State level, but at the National level I used to reach the semifinals just once or twice a year, there was no consistency,” said the 18-year-old. “I was doing better in doubles.”

She joined the Gopichand academy in Hyderabad, India’s badminton capital, just before the COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020. A year later came the move that changed her life.

Treesa and Gayatri Gopichand, daughter of chief National coach P. Gopichand, were brought together when different doubles combinations were being tried out at the academy.

“It was Gopi sir’s and coach Arun Vishnu’s decision that we should pair up,” said Treesa.

Incidentally Gayatri, the 2019 South Asian Games runner-up, had also been focusing on singles.

“When the coaches saw our game style, they thought that [putting us together] was the best,” said Gayatri.

Was the switch to doubles painful?

“No… it was my decision also and in singles, I was having too many injuries,” revealed the 19-year-old who virtually grew up on the shuttle courts at her father’s academy.

Surprisingly they clicked instantly, finishing runner-up in their first tournament together — the Polish International in September 2021.

Shortly after that, they entered the BWF World rankings in women’s doubles at 433 in late September 2021 and it has been a stunning rise since. Just before the All England this March, the pair broke into the top 50 for the first time.

But days before that, they were not even sure whether they would play the All England.

“I didn’t even expect to get in, we were No. 4 in the reserves list, then it was two and then we got in,” said Gayatri.

“We were so excited, it was our first Super 1000 tournament. We did not think of anything, there was no pressure. Give your best… we went with that frame of mind,” said Treesa.

Birmingham took the duo to a wonderful high. It was dramatic too and the Indians were up against Indonesia’s Tokyo Olympic champions Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu in the pre-quarterfinals.

“Apriyani is one of my favourite players. She is good at attacking from the back, I play a similar game. We just thought we were lucky to play the Olympic champions when we entered the court,” said Treesa.

Unfortunately, Apriyani suffered an injury and retired in the second game.

Treesa had mixed feelings after that match. “On one hand, we felt that we could play the quarterfinal but on the other hand, we felt that she should not have got injured,” she said.

They next ran into Korea’s World Championship silver medallists Lee So-hee and Shin Seung-chan.

“We didn’t have any plan, we didn’t think we’d win too, we just wanted to play our best. We told each other, we shouldn’t commit any mistake, even if we do, we should talk it out,” said Treesa.

“After the first set, we felt they could not get easy points from us. So we thought if we play well, we could do something. We took the second game 22-20 and that made us very confident in the third and we won.”

With that, they became the first Indian pair to enter the women’s doubles semifinals at the All England and it carried them to a career-high 34 in the rankings… all this just six months after their first tournament.

Their dream run ended in the semifinals against China’s Zhang Shu Xian and Zheng Yu, a pair which, like the Indians, had pulled off upsets in earlier rounds.

“Now, I feel like I can play anyone. Off court, they are all legends and all, but on court, everyone is equal and you just have to give your best,” said Gayatri.

That confidence saw them win the recent trials to pick India’s Uber Cup, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games teams. Treesa and Gayatri emerged as the country’s top pair.

An attacking player, Treesa is almost always fire and fury with her stunning smashes from the back while Gayatri is the quiet calm with her interceptions, setting the stage for her partner’s attack.

Treesa is the dominant player, as the All England showed, but the Kerala star spoke of the crucial role Gayatri plays.

“While playing, if I’m down, she will motivate me, and if I feel I’m under pressure, she will handle me well. Then she will also play her best,” explained Treesa. “She’s a strong woman, even when she had problems, she came to motivate me.”

Being the daughter of the chief National coach, perhaps the most powerful man in Indian badminton, has its challenges. There is the pressure of expectations. There have also been questions about whether she has been unfairly promoted to the Indian team.

How does Gayatri manage to stay cool despite the many pressures of her badminton life?

“I don’t know. I still take a lot of pressure but I think that’s what you have to deal with. Everyone has to deal with pressure.”

And meditation helps.

“Daily, whenever I get time, I do meditation, breathing and all those exercises. Before matches, I meditate, that really helps with handling pressure. It’s some 15 to 20 minutes. And sometimes we do it together as well,” said Gayatri.

And do images of opponents flash by during those moments?

“Yes, there is a lot of distraction but you have to focus on your breathing and get back to your body.”

Apart from being No. 36 in BWF’s World rankings, Treesa and Gayatri are currently No. 1 in the BWF World Tour rankings (for BWF World Tour and BWF Tour tournaments only).

What’s the reason for their awesome run? What do they need to do to climb further?

One had to put these questions to somebody outside the ‘zone’ for a proper perspective — someone like former international Chetan Anand, one of India’s finest players.

“Obviously, nobody expected these results [All England], that is where you have that quick transition from juniors to seniors,” said Chetan.

“They are a fresh pair, that may have helped. Others had probably not read them well. How far will they go? That depends on how others read them.

“In the semifinal, Gayatri’s defence was a little weak. She should work on her defence, her doubles drive. She plays more like a singles player… front court she needs to work on her attacking game and defence.

“And Treesa needs to work on the combination, she needs to use her partner better. Too early to predict anything… next six months or one year will be crucial,” said Chetan.

Gayatri feels there is much work to do. “One main thing is we should learn to handle pressure and have good stamina because women’s doubles is a lot about rallies.”

The Commonwealth Games and Asian Games line up this year, offering a wonderful opportunity.

“If we just think about the present and give our best, anything is possible. We’ll definitely try to make India proud… let’s see what happens,” said Gayatri.

“Commonwealth [in July-August] will be our first big Games. Of course, medal chance is there… we want to play our best and bring a medal for India,” said Treesa.

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