Like Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, Anmol Kharb has had an early impact

Sitting in the stands of the Setia City Convention Centre, U Vimal Kumar keenly observed 17-year-old Anmol Kharb beating her opponents at the Badminton Asia Team Championships in Shah Alam. Her style, game, mettle took the national selector into flashback mode when he was India coach at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

India's Anmol Kharb (C) celebrates after winning against Thailand's Pornpicha Choeikeewong in their women's singles final match at the 2024 Badminton Asia Team Championships in Shah Alam, Selangor(AFP)
India’s Anmol Kharb (C) celebrates after winning against Thailand’s Pornpicha Choeikeewong in their women’s singles final match at the 2024 Badminton Asia Team Championships in Shah Alam, Selangor(AFP)

Then sitting with a 16-year-old Saina, Vimal saw Aparna Popat lose to Tracey Hallam because of which India lost the semi-final 2-3 to England. “After the tie Saina said that if she plays the next match, she will be able to beat them,” recollects Vimal. The coach decided to try out Saina, who replaced Aparna in the bronze playoff and helped India beat New Zealand 3-1 to return with a medal. Four years later, Saina became the first Indian woman to win the singles gold in Delhi.

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“I can see something similar in Anmol. She stands out. Like Saina, here we had an inexperienced girl playing for India for the first time, handling the situation well with absolutely no fear. When you’re young you should be like that; just come and play, not carrying baggage. And she did that. She enjoyed the situation. She reminded me of Saina,” says Vimal, who guided Saina to the world No.1 ranking in 2015 – the only Indian woman to achieve the status.

Playing in only her second senior international tournament, Faridabad’s Anmol displayed similar grit and impeccable maturity to win the pressure-filled, deciding fifth and final rubbers against top seeds China, Japan and Thailand to beat experienced players ranked way higher to help India win the event for the first time on Sunday.

Who after Saina and PV Sindhu? This question has often been asked by followers of Indian badminton. It is, of course, too soon for Anmol to answer that but there’s an uncanny resemblance in the careers of Saina and Sindhu and this new prodigy.

Saina became the first Indian to be ranked junior world No.1. At 16, she won a silver at the 2006 World Junior Championships, two years later clinching gold at the same event – till date the only world junior champion from India. At 19, Saina announced her arrival at the senior stage with the Indonesia Open title – the highest tier event on the tour back in 2009.

Sindhu, on the other hand, plunged into the senior level at 15, winning multiple lower-level tournaments before claiming the junior Asian crown at 17. She announced her arrival at the big stage when she clinched a World Championships bronze at the tender age of 18.

Anmol’s performance in Shah Alam is reminiscent of the early years of Saina and Sindhu. “Yes, there definitely is. When you look at An Se Young, Akane Yamaguchi, Ratchanok Intanon, Saina, Sindhu, she matches up to that bracket. She is a fantastic talent, has the energy and fearlessness which is necessary to pull off those big wins. Her natural awareness of the court is very good; she sees angles very well,” says India chief coach Pullela Gopichand, who watched all of Anmol’s matches courtside in Malaysia.

But the road ahead for the Class XI student of DPS Faridabad is a long one.

“It is very important this talent is nurtured properly. When you play internationally people will read you; they will quickly figure out what your game plan is, what needs to be done against you, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what not to and what to play against you. You need to constantly keep innovating, adapting and improving. That is the key to international badminton and it continues all the way,” added the former All England champion.

But Anmol’s parents, advocate Devender and housewife Rajbala, along with coach Kusumm Singh are confident that the teenager has what it takes. That Anmol, a product of the Sunrise Shuttlers Academy in Noida, made it to Indian squad was not by coincidence but by beating the country’s best to become the national champion in December 2023. Just three months prior, she also reached the final of the junior nationals.

“What separates Anmol is the fact that she is very intelligent and sharp, always keen to learn. She imbibes instructions very quickly and has the knack of closely observing opponents, their strategy and changes they make during the game. She always tries to adapt the learnings as quickly as possible. She has a fearless personality, never gives up, fights till the last point and doesn’t think of results which is why she has been able to get the better of experienced players,” said Kusumm.

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