This piece was published in Sportskeeda
2012 was an up-and-down year for India’s second highest ranked men’s singles shuttler, Ajay Jayaram. From scaling the highs of reaching his maiden Super Series semifinal – the Li Ning China Masters, a tournament where he stunned Japan’s world number three Kenichi Tago in the opening round – to shocking China’s world number 12 Wang Zhengming in the first round of the Yonex Sunrise Hong Kong Open, to enduring early exits in quite a few tournaments, the year 2012 remained a mixed bag for him.
Undoubtedly, his big wins over fancied opponents like Tago and Zhenming are a pointer to his immense potential to upset the apple-cart of the world’s best.
The demure Indian Oil employee sounded upbeat about the improvement in his performance graph in 2012. He spoke on this and much more in an exclusive interview.
How would you assess your performance in 2012. Do you think consistency is one thing you really need to work on?
2012 has been an up-and-down year for me. I have had some good results from time to time, but haven’t been able to maintain consistency in my performance. Obviously, consistency is something I’m working on. I believe I need to work on the mental aspect of my game as well so that I can churn out good results on a consistent basis.
You started the year 2012 with a ranking of 28 and you finished it with a ranking of 31. So, you haven’t gained much in rankings nor you have slipped much. What are your thoughts on this?
Look, rankings do not always speak of how well a shuttler played during the entire year. I played some of my best matches in 2012. I defeated much fancied players like Kenichi Tago and Wang Zhengming. I battled with the the world number one Lee Chong Wei and took him to three games twice this year. I also achieved a career-best ranking of 23 and attained a Super Series ranking of 11. But as I’ve said before, I’ve been unable to maintain the same level throughout the year, which I believe is the reason why I haven’t progressed much ranking-wise.
September 2012 will hold special memories for you since you reached your career-best ranking of 23. Your thoughts?
Well, when I started 2012, I was definitely hoping to break into the top-20. However, I sustained an injury at the start of the year and when I did play some good matches, I couldn’t gain the necessary points as I had to defend some of my points from the previous year; also my performance was a bit patchy. However, I was happy to reach a career-high ranking of 23, it was special. Although I won’t say I’m entirely satisfied, I would consider it as a landmark, which I hope to better in 2013.
There has been a lot of talk in various quarters about how you missed the London Olympics bus. In hindsight, how would you look at it?
The Olympics was definitely a heart-breaking moment for me. Everything changed so suddenly and unexpectedly. I was deeply disappointed. But I believe I handled the setback quite well. I put that Olympics disappointment behind me and worked really hard and was able to string together good results.
Parupalli Kashyap went on to become the first Indian men’s singles player to reach the Olympic quarterfinals. What’s your take?
I think Kashyap has been playing very well and not just in the London Olympics. The latter half of 2012 has been pretty good for him. He has been quite confident and aggressive on court and I think that’s what is getting him the good results.
Parupalli Kashyap once said all five of you (Sourabh Varma, RMV Gurusaidutt and Anand Pawar included) are good enough to break into the top-10. What’s your view?
I reckon there about 6 to 7 players in India who are capable of breaking into the top-15. Many of us have pipped much higher ranked shuttlers in the last twelve months or so. There are about 5 of us already in the top-50. I’m sure you will see more players from India in the top 15.
Do you think this healthy rivalry augurs well for the future of Indian badminton?
Definitely. I think that is the main reason why Indian badminton is faring well. Healthy competition is always good for the sport. You tend to work harder only when there is rivalry and it also keeps everyone on their toes with little room for complacency.
Saina Nehwal is doing wonders to Indian badminton with her consistent performances on the world stage and winning a plethora of endorsement deals. Why do you think that our men’s singles players are struggling to get sponsors despite five Indians being in the top-50?
Saina is undoubtedly doing wonders to Indian badminton. And she deserves every bit of the endorsements she is getting. However, there isn’t enough corporate support for the next lot of players. I think there is a crying need to raise more awareness about where and what we play. Although the scenario is changing for the better, it still needs to improve further. Hopefully, the IBL (Indian Badminton League) will have the desired effect.
Game-wise, which are the areas you are looking to improve in 2013?
Over the last year, I have become more aggressive on court and have added a few more strokes to my armoury. I think I’m lacking a bit in the mental aspect of the game. I need to become more mean and positive on court. I’m working on it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it happen this year.
Unforced errors are an Achilles’ heel for the best of shuttlers. How are you addressing it?
Attack is the best form of defense, goes the saying. The same way, I think worrying too much about unforced errors only tends to make you commit more of them. I think the trick is to stay positive and not lose too much sleep over it.
Your semifinal finish at the Li Ning China Masters tournament must be one of the high points of your career since it was your maiden last-four finish in a Super Series event. Tell us a bit about your performance.
The China Masters is definitely a high point of 2012. It was a special feeling since it was my maiden Super Series semifinal appearance. I remember going into my first round match against world number 3 Tago with a very positive attitude. I played an aggressive game and was quite confident, which paved the way for my opening win and subsequently my semifinal finish.
You also upset China’s world number 12 Zhengming Wang at the Yonex Sunrise Hong Kong Open. Would you rate that win as one of your big wins in 2012?
I rate my win against Wang Zhengming at the Hong Kong open as my best win in 2012. Wang was in a rich vein of form, having reached the finals of the China Open the previous week. I played a good match on that day, showing good variation at the net and maintaining sustained attacks throughout the match.
Which are the forthcoming international tournaments you are taking part in?
I’ll be leaving this weekend for the Korea Open Super Series Premier, followed by the Malaysia Open Super Series.
Who is your favourite men’s singles player and why?
My favourite player would have to be Peter Gade. Everything, from the way he walks into the court, his attitude, his commitment and his humility really inspires me. I have never seen any shuttler walk into a court and put in less than 100% effort at all times.
What does Ajay Jayaram do when he is not playing badminton?
I like to watch movies and sitcoms. I do read books occasionally, listen to music and try my hand at other sports.
You train under English coach Tom John. How much have you benefited from his coaching?
I have been training with Tom in Bangalore for the past 2 years and he has brought about a huge change in my game. The best quality about him is that he manages to get the best out of you in every session.