From reserves to history books

“I don’t want to go into the next round like this,” Treesa Jolly protested after she came off the court. “People will call us lucky. I want us to beat our opponents.”

She and her partner Gayatri Gopichand had just moved into the All England quarterfinals after reigning Olympic champions Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu retired in the second game. The next day, both, aged 18 and 19, took down the Worlds silver medallists and became the first doubles pair from the country to enter All England semifinals. Their fairytale run was brought to a halt by the Chinese pair of Zheng Yu and Zhang Shu Xian 21-17, 21-16 on Saturday.

It’s been an extraordinary week of fearless play by the debutants – bumped up from the reserves, flying under the radar and shredding fancied opponents with their brute attacks and bare guts.

One, the daughter of national coach and former All England champion Pullela Gopichand, bred at the bustling hub of Indian badminton, Hyderabad. The other from Cherupuzha, a small hilly address in north Kerala, where if you wanted to play the sport, you built a court. It’s what Jolly Mathew Thaickal, a former PE teacher, did for his daughters Treesa and Maria. He set up a court on a patch of land outside their home. A roof was added so training could continue even through the monsoons. While Maria dropped out of the sport a few years ago and is currently pursuing a nursing course, Treesa went the other way – moving to Kannur for training and living away from family as a 13-year-old before shifting base to the Gopichand academy in Hyderabad. She is still without a steady sponsor.

Both Gayatri and Treesa started out with singles ambitions before they switched to doubles since they believed their bodies and games were better suited to it. Last year, they came together as a pair. And in only their first season they’ve raised the roof, made history, and marked themselves as one of the most exciting women’s doubles teams out there. “Usually after tournaments, most players go home, rest for a week and then come back for training,” says coach Arun Vishnu, who has been traveling with them, “but Gaytari and Treesa didn’t even take a single break. They ‘ ve been using all their time away from competitions to train. It’s one of the reasons why they’ve been making quick progress. I don’t recall the last time Treesa went home to see her family. “

For a new pair finding their way around a partnership, tiny glitches can often morph into easy break-ups. Not so far, for Treesa and Gayatri. “When new pairs lose in training matches they often try to look for other partner options. With these girls, even the times they’ve lost, they’ve stuck by each other. There’s good trust and understanding. That’s what clicks most in any. partnership, “says Vishnu.

Their combination is like two jigsaw pieces snapping into place – Treesa with her raw, ruthless and unceasing smashes – each like a giant sledgehammer coming down on the court. Gayatri, the Ms. Nimble Hands, intercepting at the net, setting up the attack and doubling up on the assault with her quick rushes. In Saturday’s semifinal, the Chinese pair piled it on Gayatri, clipping Treesa’s booming attacks from the back court and taking her out of the rallies. Their defensive frailties began to show and it’s what eventually took the match away from them.

Still, a semifinal finish is far from shabby for a pair who were until last week, at best hoping to make a few decent training sessions out of a Birmingham trip. They were almost certain an entry into the draw wasn’t happening. Until a few withdrawals later, it did. And how they’ve turned it into a historic, unforgettable run.

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