New Delhi: More than a year after recovering from a shoulder injury, Ajay Jayaram earned a final appearance at the Korea Open last week and the Indian shuttler said it was a big moment for him after enduring a challenging seven-month layoff.
Coming into the tournament as an underdog, Jayaram went on to reach the finals and even though he eventually lost to World No.1 Chen Long, the Bangalore-based shuttler is glad he could realise his dream of making it to the finals of a Super Series event.
"Since my childhood, I have seen so many people whom I look upto like Peter Gade, Lin Dan or Taufik Hidayat getting up there, so it was a dream to take the court in a Super Series finals. So it was a big moment for me to reach the finals," Jayaram told PTI.
For six months, Jayaram was left on the sidelines, nursing a shoulder injury sustained in January last year. What followed was multiple visits to the doctor, going under the knife and then the rehabilitation process.
Asked about that phase, Jayaram said: "It was not easy going through the injury phase. I mean, first I thought I will be back after 4 months but the rehab was the most challenging.
Because there are so many ups and downs, there are days when you don't feel good, there is some pain and then you doubt your fitness.
"But to come back after seven months and win my first GPG title at the Dutch Open was a huge thing for me. Post that, I reached the semifinal at Malaysia and also final at Swiss Open. So it was a decent performance and much needed boost for me. And now reaching the Super Series finals is my best performance. Now the challenge is to sustain that in the coming months as I play more super series.
"I think the injury phase made me more hungry to get back on the court and do well. It was a challenging phase but I am glad I could spend time with my parents and I'm happy that I also stuck on and got better," added the Mumbai-born shuttler, who won the biggest title of his career, the Dutch Open, at only his fourth tournament after injury.
Talking about the Korea Open, Jayaram said: "I had lost to Viktor Axelsen in the Japan Open and that was disheartening, but then once I beat him in the first round, it really gave me the confidence. It sort of pumped me up. Also I had lost to Tien Chen twice, so that win also was a confidence booster.
"So with each round, I was becoming more confident. I was defending well, and moving well. In the finals also, I played reasonably well. In fact, if I could have stick with him, may be he could have cracked in the first game."
"He (Chen) is a difficult player. He is so confident about his fitness and is very patient. He gets back all the shuttles and also he is solid at the nets. I was returning his smashes but mistakes cropped up in my game later in the match.
So there are a few areas which I need to improve but there are a lot of positives to take from the match," said Jayaram.
Currently ranked 32nd, Jayaram is expected to make a big jump in world rankings when the fresh list is released on Thursday but the Indian said he is not concerned about that and wants to focus on consistency.
"I am not concerned about ranking right now. I know I will be within top 25 next week. But I want to concentrate on getting some good wins, reaching quarters and semifinals regularly and that will take care of the ranking," he said.
Jayaram had come within touching distance of qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics, only to lose the berth at the last moment to P Kashyap, who toppled him in rankings following a walkover in the India Open.
"It was disheartening to lose out in Olympics race," Jayaram said.
"I was unlucky in the last tournament but there were many events before that were I should have done better. It was hard mentally to accept but then I reached the semifinals of China Open and it felt great."
Asked if this performance has spurred him to go for next year's Rio Games, Jayaram said the Olympics is not in his mind right now.
"To be honest, I am not thinking about that right now because then you stray away from what you enjoy doing. I know Olympics is a great honour but there are other tournaments as well which you can win and then if you do well, it will take care of the qualification," he said.
Jayaram attributed his success to his parents and India-born British coach Tom John.
"I am everything for my parents. Ever since a kid, they inspired me. My parents are South Indian and are academically inclined but they have always supported me and allowed me to pursue badminton," he said.
"I also owe a lot to my coach Tom John. I met him first at Padukone academy in 2010 at Bangalore. I was struggling then with my ranking hovering around 70s. I liked his approach and he asked me to come to Portugal and train and I went there for three months, before he moved to India. He gets the best out of me."
Since the 2012 Olympics, a lot has changed in Indian badminton with the emergence of K Srikanth, who won the 2014 China Open Super Series Premier and the India Open Super Series this year, and Kashyap, who also won the Commonwealth Games gold at Glasgow.
Jayaram said the stiff competition in the domestic circuit is pushing the shuttlers to work harder and it is reflected in the results.
"Healthy competition is the best thing that can happen to any player and we have that now with K Srikanth, Kashyap and HS Prannoy doing so well. They push you hard and Srikanth winning a couple of Super Series showed that you can do it and you draw inspiration from it and that is how the country goes ahead, which is happening in India," he signed off.