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A shot at glory

A shot at glory

As she represents India at the World Junior Badminton Championships, Rituraj Borkakoty meets Dubai girl Tanisha Crasto who once had "no one to play with"

Published: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 2:00 AM

"Feel the shuttle, Tanisha. You need to feel the shuttle more and more to get a proper shot." That was Saina Nehwal nudging Tanisha Crasto in the right direction when the Indian icon came all the way from Hyderabad in 2016 to have an on-court session with one of Dubai's brightest badminton talents. Armed with the words of her biggest hero, Tanisha continued to work hard on her game as shots poured off her racquet strings every day in sweaty practice sessions, which eventually catapulted her into the higher echelons of the Indian junior circuit.
A doubles specialist, Tanisha hasn't had a misstep ever since she left Dubai for India in 2017 to test her game against the very best in the most demanding conditions. It's a test Tanisha has passed with flying colours. And now, this 16-year-old Indian High School student has a shot at glory as she represents India at the World Junior Badminton Championships that kicked off on September 30 in Russia.
This is her second straight world juniors, having also played last year in Canada. "It's a special moment because out of 2,000-3,000 players in India, we have been selected to represent the country at the world juniors," says Tanisha, speaking to WKND ahead of the tournament. "Now, India's hopes are with us. Last year, we lost the team event in quarters. But this time, I am confident. Since I'd gone last year, I have an idea about the rival players, their game style."
A medal in Russia, of course, will be icing on the cake for Tanisha and mark the beginning of the next chapter in what has been an inspiring story. That didn't begin on the indoor courts of India. This journey actually has its roots in the Etisalat Academy in Dubai when a five-year-old Tanisha was inspired to pick up a racquet after seeing her father, Cliford Crasto, go toe-to-toe with his friends on the court.
"I remember my father used to take me to Etisalat Academy. I would go there and keep watching everyone play, mostly him. And, you know, by watching them play, I gradually developed an interest in the game. I wanted to play badminton. So, one day, he gave me a racquet and said, 'Come, play with me'. That's when I started; every day we would go and play," she says.
Tanisha may have begun to play for fun, but it soon turned into a serious affair. "A year later, my father realised I had a talent and needed professional training. But it didn't occur to me. I just wanted to play because it was so much fun," she smiles. "But my father was seriously thinking of giving me proper training and a chance to play proper tournaments. So, at the age of seven, I played my first tournament in Dubai. It was the India Club Open, and I played in the Under-9 category. I won the first tournament itself. Then I was in singles. After getting that first trophy, I was like, 'Oh, I could do more'."
Such was her dominance that she began winning all age-group tournaments in the UAE, becoming the number one junior player in the GCC. But what's more impressive is the ease with which Tanisha has made the transition to the highly competitive Indian junior circuit. She admits it wouldn't have been possible had she not played against the men in Dubai. "It's not the training in Dubai. It's actually the group of senior people I used to play with in Dubai at the India Club that prepared me for tough competitions in India," says Tanisha. "Most of them had already played at national championships in India. And they still play at a very high level. The best badminton players in the UAE get together at the India Club. Playing with former players like Zafar Ibrahim, James Varghese and Shibil improved my game. The pace was different. There was more power. There was more speed. As I kept playing, I kept getting the same pace, the same power. It's because of them that it's been easy for me in India.  It helped me cope with the high standards in the Indian junior circuit."
Cliford agrees with his daughter. "They never treated her like a girl. They just treated her like any other player across the net and played their best game. Playing with them helped her game so much, she developed at a very fast pace," says Cliford.
James Varghese, one of the former players who played with Tanisha at the India Club, still remembers the first day he saw her play. "She was very little, but very skilful when I first saw her. So, we played with her, but she lacked power then. That's the issue with most girls. But Tanisha in the last few years, has got more power and speed. Maybe yes, playing with us helped her. Now she is the finisher, her partner makes the play, but it's Tanisha who wins points with her powerful smashes."
Even Arun Vishnu, one of the elite coaches at the famous Gopichand Academy where Tanisha trains now, was surprised to see her level of play. "Coming from Dubai to India, it's not easy. But she is very strong and skilful. In her category, she is among the best players in the country and has coped with the demanding training schedule at our academy."
For Tanisha, getting a chance to train at the Gopichand Academy is a dream come true. "I'd been trying to get into Gopi sir's academy for so long. Then they finally approached us last year. The training at the Gopichand Academy has made me stronger.  And getting to learn from Gopi sir is amazing," says Tanisha, who trains six hours a day at an academy that has now made India a badminton powerhouse, producing players like Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu, the reigning world champion and Olympic silver medallist. "He is a very nice person, but when it comes to training, he is really strict. He wants everything to be perfect. He is very particular about discipline."  
Such has been Tanisha's impact that the Gopichand Academy has already planned to enter her in the senior tournaments - even though she is only 16. However, it's not Pullela Gopichand, but Tanisha's father Cliford who has played the biggest part in her memorable journey so far.
Cliford quit his job in Dubai to travel around India for tournaments where he is the constant source of inspiration for his daughter. Tanisha knows her journey would not have even started without her father and her first coach. "If it wasn't for him today, I don't think I would even be playing badminton," says Tanisha, with a glint in her eye. "You know, I owe everything I win, everything, just to him because my family are the only ones who know how much he has sacrificed. It's not easy for the man of the house to leave his job so he can travel with his daughter. Today, only my mum is managing the house. Even though we were in such a difficult situation, my parents never made me feel that I lacked something."
Tanisha's parents have stayed as solid as a rock even when sponsors have been hard to come by in the junior circuit. "A lot of people show interest, but whenever I give them the feedback, I don't get any response," says Cliford. "Luckily, Adidas got in touch with us last year after they saw her profile. Now, they provide her with equipment and apparel. In a way, that gives me a bit of support. This year they said they would sponsor us in some of the tournaments, which will also be helpful. It's not a cheap sport. A shuttle box that contains 12 shuttles will cost you INR 2,100 (Dh109)in India. When we play, we use two shuttles a day. Imagine, the professional players. They snap the strings every day because they hit so many shots in training. There is a cost involved in that. Imagine how much money is involved in the restringing. When you go for tournaments, you have to get your shuttles for training. Of course, at the Gopichand Academy, they take care of it. But when you are playing in the tournaments, you need to carry your own stuff."
It's quite incredible then that without proper sponsors, Tanisha now stands on the cusp of world juniors glory. "Badminton Association of India takes care of everything when they play abroad. I don't have to worry about the expenses at the world juniors," says Cliford.
Looking back, however, Cliford gets emotional while talking. "You know, there was a time when she would cry because no one was willing to play with her. She was too small. I kept telling her the same thing - if you keep playing well, they will come and ask you to play with them. Then next year, the top players made a beeline to partner her," Cliford reminisces about the first part of their journey.
For someone who cried for having no one to play with, Tanisha Crasto will now be the leader of the Indian national team at the world juniors, having earned the most points at national events.
It's been quite a journey for this Dubai girl.  

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