Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Interview: My best is yet to come: Ajay Jayaram

Indian men’s shuttler Ajay Jayaram is enjoying a good run – the 29-year-old Mumbai broke into the top-20 recently for the first time ever following semifinal appearances at the US Open and Canadian Open. Jayaram – currently ranked 19 in the world – spoke about his game and much more in an exclusive interview.
Excerpts:
Q. How does it feel to break into the top-20 - your career best singles ranking so far?
It definitely feels great to break into the top 20 again. However, the hope, this time, is to go further by maintaining a consistent level of performance.
Q. You had two semifinal finishes at the US Open and Canadian Open. In hindsight with a bit of luck, you could have won both these titles. Your thoughts?
True. I have mixed feelings about both those performances. I did play some good matches to reach the last 4 stage in both tournaments. However, I can't be happy about my performance in both the semifinals I played. I struggled a bit with my shoulder in Canada when I was up against Lee Hyun-il which made it hard for me to give my best.
I thought I had a much better chance in US where I played against the young Japanese, Kanta Tsuneyama. But I never really found any rhythm and the match slipped away before I could settle down. Disappointing end to an otherwise good tournament, but lots to learn.
Q. There weIre many Indians in the fray - Praneeth, Pranoy, Guru and Anand among others. How satisfying is it to make it to the semis of US Open?
Winning matches and making it to the semis or finals of a tournament always feels good irrespective of whether there are Indians or not. Also, considering the number of Indian men's singles players who are currently in the top 50 and 100 in the world, and a rising number of juniors who are always eager to do well and make a mark, most tournaments would feature a good number of Indians. And this is always great because you're bound to see more encouraging performances as has been observed in the recent past.
Q. Do you think at 29 you are playing best badminton of your career?
I guess and, more importantly, I hope my best is yet to come
Q. What are the positives you think has helped you to up your performance and rankings?
My performances in the past few months prior to this circuit had dipped owing to lack of training. So I decided to skip the Australia and Indonesia Open and get some weeks of good quality training. I'm glad that it has showed positive results. I still believe, however, that a lot more work needs to be done.
Q. Every player looks to improve - what will be your improvement areas?
My fitness has risen over the past month and that's something I will have to maintain. Apart from that I believe adding a bit more of variation in my strokes and varying the general pace of rallies from time to time will help me immensely
Q. How has been your experience of playing against the singles' top players. What does it take to beat them?
It's always great to play against the top players. You learn a lot each time. For that matter, you learn something from every good match you play, win or lose. What sets the top few apart is, I guess, their confidence and ability to perform at a constant level match after match. Another very important aspect I believe is how well you manage to stay injury free.
Q. What are the learnings you had from playing in the PBL?
PBL was different in the sense that you had an added element of pressure of your team depending on you. So learning to handle that was something I could take out of that.
Q. What goals have you set for yourself for the future?
I am currently enjoying training and playing/competing at this level. That is a very important thing for me. I think something as basic, but immensely difficult as giving your best and playing at a consistent level in every match, every tournament is something I want to focus on. Last year I finished with a silver in a Super Series event. So hoping to do one better and emerge with a win.

Rio Olympics 2016: Narsingh Yadav doping issue unfortunate for Indian wrestling, says Sushil Kumar’s coach and former great Satpal Singh

Controversies just refuse to die away when it comes to Indian wrestling. India’s 74-kg freestyle grappler Narsingh Yadav’s being testing positive for a banned substance has hurt Indian wrestling in a big way – the official confirmation by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) has thrown a cloud of uncertainty over who will represent India in the 74-kg category at the Rio Olympics.
Indian wrestling has been rocked earlier by the so-called ‘Sushil Kumar vs Narsingh Yadav’ fiasco, as to who will play for the country in the freestyle 74-kg category after the latter had sealed the Olympic berth winning a bronze medal at the 2015 World Championships in the USA.
Former wrestling great and Sushil Kumar’s coach Satpal Singh says the whole development is ill-timed. “It’s unfortunate that Indian wrestling has to face such a situation where a player is tested positive with just ten days to go for the Olympics,” he says.
The former wrestling great believes the image of the sport has surely taken a beating. “There is no doubt that Indian wrestling is on a high and everyone is expecting medals from our grapplers. But the reputation of Indian wrestling has taken a pounding because of this latest development,” he observes.
Narsingh had said that he is ‘innocent’ and that the whole testing positive thing is nothing but a conspiracy. Satpal puts forth his views on the same. “Look, NADA has caught him using a banned substance and how can it be a conspiracy. India wants its wrestlers to do well in the Olympics and it is not fair for Narsingh to say it is a conspiracy.
“I have nothing against Narsingh but this whole thing was uncalled for,” he quips.
Now with Narsingh being handed provisional suspension and virtually ruled out of next month's Olympics, it remains to be whether Sushil can replace him in Rio. Insiders say there may be no Indian representation in the 74kg category in Rio Games because the date of entry of the athletes is over.
“It is for the WFI to decide on whom to send for Rio. I can’t comment on it – all I’m saying is the country should not miss out on an opportunity to send a representation in 74-kg,” he adds.

Rio Olympics 2016: Shooter Jitu Rai should back himself to corner glory at the Games

Indian shooting contingent invariably have to carry ‘high expectations’ whenever they head to the summer Olympics. Why not? After all, the Indian marksmen have never returned empty-handed from the marquee event since Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, a feat which was bettered by Abhinav Bindra’s gold winning showing in Beijing in 2008 and the ‘medal-winning momentum’ was maintained by Gagan Narang and Vijay Kumar in London in 2012.
As the 2016 Rio Olympics draws closer, the Indian shooters will hope to grab the limelight – and one man, who will look to prove that his solid performance on the international stage in recent years is no fluke, is talented Jitu Rai. The 29-year-old Army shooter has ‘done much’ on the international stage in recent years to exude hope among shooting fans about being a potential medal prospect.
Every athlete needs a nice build-up going into the Olympics, and Jitu seems to have ticked all the boxes on this front.

The ace shooter had started the year with a gold medal finish at the ISSF World Cup in Bangkok in March in the men’s 50-metre pistol event – following it up by bagging a silver medal in the men’s 10-metre air pistol event at the ISSF World Cup in Baku. Clearly, these performances will stand him in good stead for the Rio Olympics.
The ISSF World Cup does provide a fair idea of where a shooter stands on the world level. Why Jitu’s gold and silver medal-winning efforts in Bangkok and Baku are significant, because he had a pretty rough time in 2015 – winning only a bronze medal at the 2015 ISSF World Cup in Changwon.
The lone medal effort at the ISSF World Cup is seen as a disappointment because he really rocked in 2014 winning three ISSF World Cup medals – one silver in Maribor and one silver in Munich ISSF World Cups, as well as winning gold medals in the men’s 50 metre pistol at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
Eight ISSF World Cup medals in last three years must be some ‘performance’ from Jitu and no wonder medal hopes are soaring from the Indian shooting fans. The one question that is asked is that in which event Jitu fancies his medal hopes – 50-metre pistol or 10-metre air pistol?
As far as the 50-metre pistol event is concerned, Jitu’s main challengers will be Ukraine’s Oleh Omlechuk (who won the Rio de Janeiro ISSF World Cup), Spain’s Pablo Carrera (he had won the Munich ISSF World Cup), Korea’s Jin Jongoh (he had won the Baku ISSF World Cup) besides the Chinese duo of Wei Pang and Wang Zhiwei.
Not to speak much of fancied Brazilian Felipe Almeida Wu, who had won two of the 2016 ISSF World Cup crowns in the men’s 10-metre air pistol event. One hopes that Jitu who had become the first Indian shooter to earn a Rio quota in September 2015, with a second place finish at the 2015 World Championships in Spain, won’t disappoint his fans and put in a blockbuster performance in Rio.

Interview with Manoj Kumar: Vast experience will help me in the Rio Olympics

He is the most experienced Indian male boxer – yes, Manoj Kumar has a bucketful of experience – and will look to optimise that when he boxes for the country in the light welterweight category (64kg) of the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics. The 29-year-old with a massive 11 years of international experience, will be travelling to London next week as part of the Talent Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme to fine-tune his preparations for the games after having made the Rio cut after the Baku Olympic Qualifying Event recently.
The Haryana lad, who is employed with the Indian Railways, spoke about his Olympic aspirations and much more in an exclusive interview.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview:


Q: How satisfying it is to qualify for your second consecutive Olympics?

It feels good to make the Olympic cut – we all work hard with the aspiration of representing our country in the Olympics and I consider myself fortunate to be featuring in my second Olympics.
Q: You featured in as many five bouts before you qualified for the Rio Olympics by reaching the last-four stage of the 64kg category – how would you sum up your overall experience in Baku?
I outboxed boxers from Puerto Rico, Ireland, Bulgaria and Tajikistan before I lost to Great Britain’s Pat MacCormack in the semifinals – all my bouts were hard-fought and I really had to be at my best to win all my bouts.
Q: You have been boxing in the light welterweight category (64kg) for eleven years now – how much this rich experience will help you in Rio?
Experience do matter and I need to use it to my best advantage in Rio – all I want to say is I will give my best shot and if the Almighty showers his blessings who knows I might end up with a podium finish.
Also read: Rio Olympics 2016: Boxer Manoj Kumar books an August date in Brazil
Q: You lost in the second round of the 64kg at the 2012 London Olympics – having experienced the Olympic stage must be of big help to you this time around. 
Four years ago, I was thrilled to bits playing in the Olympics but now the focus is not  just on boxing for the country but winning a medal and making the country proud. Keeping my fingers crossed.
Q: You were not earlier part of the Government’s Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme but you have been inducted after qualifying for the Rio Olympics.
I’m really happy to avail the TOP scheme – my coach Rajesh Kumar is also travelling with me to London next week for a three-week training stint along with the national squad and other coaching staff.
Q: You owe a lot to your elder brother turned coach Rajesh Kumar for whatever you have achieved in boxing. Your thoughts.
Rajesh is five years elder to me and the kind of setbacks I have endured in my boxing career it would not have been possible for Rajesh – he is a pillar of strength for me – if he was not supporting me I don’t know where I would have been languishing today. He is everything for me.
Q You have said on most occasions that you always got a raw deal – your thoughts.
Many would have given up boxing if they experienced the setbacks I have come up against. My steely resolve allowed me to surmount everything and focus on boxing.
Q: You have expressed your desire to quit international boxing with an Olympic bang?
I would like to go out on a high but can’t say much about the future. For now, I want to win a medal for my country.

Interview with HS Prannoy: "Important not to rush your international return after injury"

HS Prannoy is down with a toe injury, which put him out of the India team for the Thomas Cup. The 23-year-old youngster from Kerala is doing everything he can to return to the international circuit. Prannoy, who had won the 2016 Swiss Open in Basel, talks about his game and much more in an exclusive interview.
Excerpts:
Q You missed the Thomas Cup due to a toe injury – how is your recovery process going on?
I sustained a toe injury at the Singapore Open and subsequently had to miss the Thomas Cup. My rehab has been good so far – I hope to return to the international circuit by June-end – I’m aiming to play in the Canadian Open and US Open. Keeping my fingers crossed.
Q India’s Thomas Cup performance was disappointing – your thoughts.
I think we are not at full strength – me, Kashyap and Srikanth did not play in the Thomas Cup. I feel that the outcome could have been different if we were at full strength though the boys gave their best.
Q Is there any disappointment at missing playing in the 2016 Rio Olympics?
I’m a tad disappointed at not making the Olympic cut – I have taken it in my stride and want to return to the circuit injury-free and win tournaments.
Q Indian shuttlers have been consistently grappling with injuries – how frustrating it is to cope with injuries?
The most important thing is to know why an injury has occurred and accordingly take corrective measures. Equally important is not to rush your return to the international circuit. There is no point in looking at short-term goals of what if I miss a few tournaments as we all need to look at the bigger picture. I have been down with injuries on several occasions in last few years and I know it is futile to get frustrated as I try to stay positive.
Q How would you sum up your Swiss Open triumph?
It was really satisfying to win the Swiss Open – I beat higher ranked players like Germany’s Marc Zwiebler and England’s Rajiv Ouseph en route to winning the crown.
Q After the Swiss Open win, you faced a string of first round defeats. Your thoughts.
I don’t want to give any excuses but I was handed some tough draws in most of these tourneys – I ran into guys like Kento Momoto and Chen Long at the Malaysian Open and Singapore Open – I played my heart out but it wasn’t enough.
Q You played for Mumbai Rockets in the 2016 Premier Badminton League. How was your experience?
It was a fantastic experience to play in the PBL – the way it was conducted was laudable – crowds have thronged the venue, especially the final where we lost to Delhi Acers. I just hope the PBL is held every year.
Q India has seen seven-eight men singles players figuring in the top-50 in the last few years or so – does that tell you something about the health of Indian badminton?
Absolutely! There was a time when we had only Saina reaping laurels for the country – now we have Sindhu, Srikanth, Kashyap among many others. I guess Indian badminton will get even better in future.

Interview with Sonia Lather: "World championship medal proves I’m the best"

Indian women boxing contingent had never returned empty-handed from the AIBA World Championship and Sonia Lather deserves all praise for ensuring the country came home with a coveted silver medal in the marquee event. The 24-year-old pugilist, who hails from Haryana’s Jind district, lost the featherweight (57-kg) category to Italy’s Alessia Mesiano in a tight contest.
Employed with the Railways, Sonia, who did not box for India for three years since the 2012 Asian Championship, spoke about her world championship ‘highs’ and much more in an exclusive interview.
Excerpts:

Q You must have been a special feeling to win a silver medal at the 2016 AIBA World Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan. Your thoughts.
I’m really happy to win a medal for my country. I’m a tad disappointed that I could not win my final bout against Italy’s Alessia Mesiano. I thought the final bout was a close affair and I really had my chances to go for glory, but it was not destined to be my day.

Q You won four bouts to reach the final of the featherweight (57-kg) category. Can you sum up all your bouts?

I fought against a Mongolian, a German and a Polish opponent in the first three rounds and I was in full control in these bouts. I was little apprehensive about my semifinal bout against Kazakhstan’s Aizhan Khojabekova not because she was a great boxer but because she is from the host nation. Beating a pugilist from the host nation always gives a joyous feeling.

Q This is the first time you fought in the featherweight (57-kg) category and you won a medal at the world championships – you have been out of the national team for three years. This must have been really satisfying win?

I was a national champion in 2010, 2011 and 2012 in the bantamweight category (54-kg) which is my pet weight category but I was not getting opportunities to represent the nation. I gave trials for the lightweight (60-kg) category for the 2016 world championships but was picked for the featherweight (57-kg category).

Q You last played for India at the 2012 Asian Boxing Championship in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where you had won a silver medal in the bantamweight category (54-kg) – you played in the 2016 world championship after three years in the wilderness.

Politics is always there in the selection of boxers. I was not getting picked despite performing. My world championship medal proves that I’m the best in the featherweight category. It is never easy to perform on the international stage when you have not represented the country for three years.

Q How disappointing it is to see none of our women boxers securing an Olympic berth?

It’s a sad feeling indeed. It would have been nice to have our boxers in Rio but not qualifying for the Olympics is a reality we have to come to terms with.

Q How do you look at the future of Indian women boxing?

There is a future only if a federation is put in place. We have been boxing under the AIBA flag and boxers are the bigger sufferers – youngsters are only training and no nationals being are being held since 2014. I just hope a federation takes control of Indian boxing soon.

Q Tell us about your family and where you started picking up boxing?

I’m the only one boxing in the family. My father is a farmer – I have two sisters and one brother.

Performing in major tournaments is the focus: Indian women's hockey coach Neil Hawgood

Neil Hawgood knows his girls quite well now – after all, he has been working with them for a long time now. He took charge of the Indian women’s hockey team in mid-2012 and left the job in late 2014 before again taking up the head coach role in November 2015 to prepare the national women’s team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Aussie, who had played in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, talks about his team’s improvement areas and much more in an exclusive interview.

Excerpts:

Q The recent tour of England has been a big disappointment for the Indian women’s team – they lost all their five matches – conceding 21 goals. How would you sum up your team’s performance on the England tour?
While the results were disappointing, ass you have stated in our big losses we conceded goals in short periods of play, like the last game where we had to replace our goalkeeper at halftime due to an injury and then conceded 4 goals in about 8 minutes.
But that was us dealing with them for two quarters of the game. So the results do not always tell you a whole picture, so yes it was disappointing but there were signs of us being able to compete and be competitive, but we could not sustain that for four quarters of hockey.
Q Ever since we qualified for the Olympics after a gap of 36 years, do you feel that the Indian team appeared to have gone off the boil if their performances in South Africa, New Zealand and England are anything to go by – your thoughts?
Well, Argentina and South Africa, were actually quite good tours for us, we were able to beat South Africa for the first time in 10 years I believe, so that was encouraging, and prior to that we toured Argentina where we drew with Australia, and drew with China and drew one game with Argentina.
Since those tours, we have put the group through one of the hardest training phases that we could, and while the results were not media-friendly, I think we were expecting this down in performance – obviously England was a bit more disappointing than we would have hoped for. So we are now coming out of that training phase, so hopefully in the next phase we will see recovery faster and also more consistent effort during games.
Q Indian forward line is quite talented but hasn’t delivered much in New Zealand and England. Does that concern you?
Talented yes, but definitely has not delivered since New Zealand, but before that in Argentina and South Africa, they did deliver.
Q This is your second stint as Indian women team head coach – you had a pretty successful stint from mid-2012 to 2014-end – the team won a silver medal at the 2013 Asian Champions  Trophy besides bagging a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games. How would you differentiate your two coaching stints with the Indian team?
I cannot say any differences, as I treat them both as projects, the first project was to promote the youth and change the way we trained and prepared physically for tournaments. The second stint is the same, progress the group to another level which is required at the Olympics in August.
Q Realistically speaking, the Indian team isn’t expected to make a podium finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but the team have shown that they can hold their own against top teams. What’s your take?
Dealing with external and internal goals is different – our goal is simple, first to make the quarter-finals and that means winning two games. When we achieve that it is just one game you have to win to have a chance to proceed, that is what we want to do, put ourselves into that position.
Q How would you assess our penalty corner conversion rate and also our ability to defend them?
On both areas, we need to work hard in the last phase on these areas, but all has to be put in line with what our priorities are and move towards having all areas covered and PCs are one of those areas.
Q Fitness- wise Indian team have made rapid strides in recent years – where do you think our team needs to work on before they start regularly beating sides like Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Great Britain?
It is the strength to be able to push that fitness level to match the rest of the world if you are physically not strong there is a limit to where you can push the physical limits.
Q You have been a big match player yourself having played in two World Cups and Seoul Olympics. The Rio Olympics is a first big tournament for the Indian girls – surely your big match experience will help our girls.
Our new assistant coach has been to 6 Olympics and as you have stated my tournaments, we can only advise on our experiences and the first will always be difficult. But the issue will be that all 16 players taking the  field, not having that experience, so we can explain and talk about our experiences, but playing we can only prepare as well as we can, and hopefully mentally they are prepared as well as they will be physically.
Q Do you feel there is more awareness about women hockey in India after we qualified for the Olympics after a gap of 36 years?
Yes, I believe there is a more general awareness of women hockey in India, and we have played our part, what we need to do is start to play a bigger part in women’s sport by becoming consistent and performing in major international events.
Q What are the international tournaments India are playing heading into the Rio Olympics?
We have a Four Nation Tournament in Australia next week, then we select our Olympic team and then we head to USA fro a pre-Olympic holding and training camp and play matches against USA and Canada in July.
Q What will be your message to the Indian women hockey fans?
Remain positive as change takes time, and this is a major step in changing that.