Ajay Jayaram endures to make lonely battle count

Last week in Spain, Ajay Jayaram made the semi-finals of a World 300 event for the first time in 20 months. ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

Ajay Jayaram is sucking his savings dry. He doesn't have a coach or physio in his corner through most tournaments and it's more than just his rankings that have taken a hit over the past year and a half.

Last week, Jayaram ran through his change of clothes at the Spain Masters tournament. The business end of competitions hasn't been a familiar habit for him in a while. It's been 20 months since he made the semifinals of a World 300 event. He eventually lost to Thailand's Kunlavat Vitidsarn in straight games in Spain.

Jayaram, who was ranked no.13 three years ago, now finds himself tottering outside the top 60. Some of it had to do with a hamstring injury he suffered in 2018, which kept him off court for eight months. The Badminton Association of India's (BAI) stipulation that players need to be in top-25 for their tournament expenses to be funded by the federation has been a hard blow for players like Jayaram. Right now, India has nine players in the top 100, only three of them fall inside the top 25 bracket and are eligible for funding.

Jayaram is understandably hurting and dispatches an SOS to the federation. "In spite of a string of decent results in 2018 after I got back (from injury), I received no support or funding," he says. "While I understand BAI's system of a ranking cut off, I believe there should be some support for top-20 players who have suffered from injury. Lack of sponsorship has been my biggest challenge these last couple of years and it has been mentally harrowing. I owe it to my employers, Indian Oil Corporation because of whom I'm still able to compete. I hope BAI takes note of this result (at Spain Masters) and helps me in some way." Depending on the location, each tournament costs Jayaram roughly Rs. 1-2 lacs (approx. USD 1400-2700) for which he exhausts his salary and is forced to bite into his savings.

The 32 year-old has been training with Bangalore-based coach and former top-25 singles player Anup Sridhar for the past 14 months and last weekend's Spain Masters had him beating two higher-ranked players, one of them being Kidambi Srikanth. The win against the former world No 1 Indian was Jayaram's first at a World Tour level.

"It's been a tough period, mentally," says Jayaram. "With this tournament though I feel I'm back to a good level of fitness. My speed and movement on court seems fluid and I'm happy about that."

Sridhar and Jayaram have known each other for two decades and trained together under coach Tom John in Bangalore before the former, plagued by injury retired less than five years ago when he was 32. A quarterfinalist at the 2007 World Championships, the edition in which he famously beat former world No 1 Taufik Hidayat, Sridhar made an appearance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he lost in the round of 16. He's also head coach of the Pro Badminton League side Awadhe Warriors, in which Jayaram is also a playing member.

"During the PBL this time we managed to spend a lot of time chatting, going over what's been working for him and what hasn't," says Sridhar. "I have faced similar issues in my career so there is an innate understanding between us. We have to tweak training programs and customize tournament schedules to suit his body. It has be a constant, ongoing process. The playing conditions also vary vastly between tournaments so the one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work."

An attacking player layered with aggression, Jayaram will have to, in the changed scenario of lengthier matches, do more than smash from the back of the court, according to Sridhar. "The shuttles have become lighter and much slower in general. Playing good attacking clears, creating an opening and then going for the kill is something Jayaram will have to do. Our main focus is longevity, which is making sure he is fit. Recovery is slow at his age so he has to manage his body well and not let the odd niggle flare into a full-blown injury. If he manages to do that, he has at least three or four years left in him and if he stays injury-free, he should be back into the top 30 over the next six months. At this stage though the smart thing to do is not to look too far ahead but instead set 90-day goals," Sridhar says.

In a few other areas, Sridhar is glad to look ahead - the prospect of accompanying Jayaram to tournaments for instance. "The lack of finances have taken a huge toll on Jayaram. Even to be able to hold on to his ranking costs him a lot of money and the pressure is immense. Every time you end up asking yourself, 'am I doing the right thing?' Hopefully, things could change over the next few months once my academy shifts to a new facility and there are enough coaches on board to manage the training in my absence." Sridhar currently has 55 players training under him and the fresh set-up should free him up to pitch assistance in travelling with his old buddy.

Until then, Jayaram will have to persist, compete and make his lonely battle count.