As shuttler V. Diju begins his maiden Olympics campaign, he talks to P. Anima about his career
“Tomorrow morning am going to London for Olympics, please pray for me to get a medal.” V. Diju’s earnest text is likely to have landed in many inboxes on Monday evening. The 31-year-old shuttler from Ramanattukkara, on the outskirts of Kozhikode, is on his maiden Olympics journey.
On Saturday, Diju and his mixed doubles partner Jwala Gutta will play their first match in what is considered a stiff draw.
Diju is the quieter yet solid part of the partnership. Jwala’s flamboyant net play meets its faultless foil in Diju’s killer finish. And together they learnt to win and had some big wins till Diju was struck by a back injury last year. Healed, he is back with Jwala, and their Olympics qualification hints at the challenge they still can pose.
Diju is never the storyteller. His progress has been impressive, from a tiny city to the arena of world badminton, but he is not one to recount his struggles, dreams or determination. Instead, he gives stoic, firm, matter-of-fact replies, trimmed to the point and often monosyllabic. He is hardly home these days. “I come maybe once in two months. And I miss the usual things; food and friends when I am away,” he says.
When he is not on tour, Diju is at practice at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. He may be the first Keralite in 20 years to represent badminton at the Olympics after U. Vimal Kumar at Barcelona, but Diju betrays no pressure or excitement. “We are not working out anything special, just some corrections that our Indonesian coach Edwin Irawan has suggested,” he says over the telephone from Hyderabad, where practice extends for four hours in the morning and two in the evening.
Currently ranked 13 in the world, Diju says he and Jwala are first looking to win a couple of matches that will probably take them to the semifinals. “The 16 teams have been divided into two pools of eight each,” he explains.
Though their recent run doesn’t match up to their show in 2009 — their annus mirabilis — Diju looks at each setback positively. “At the Singapore Open in June we lost in the quarter finals to the eventual winners,” he says.
The Olympics is a noteworthy chapter in this sportsman’s career, which took a serious turn when he was 10. His businessman father and homemaker mother were a great support always, he says. A student at the Government UP School, Ramanattukara, he fixed his sights on badminton when he joined the Sports Authority of India centre in Thrissur. That also largely severed his day-to-day link with Kozhikode, as his schooling too shifted to Thrissur.
However, it is when he moved to the Gopichand Badminton Academy in 2006 that he began a life amidst champion players. “I came in touch with all the top Indian players and also the facilities were fantastic,” says Diju.
By then the shuttler had also moved towards doubles partnership, mostly with Sanave Thomas.
“I played singles mostly in the junior level, till I was about 22. Then I realised I was getting good performances in the doubles.” In 2008, he and Jwala became mixed doubles partners. “Our strength is the left-right combination, which makes it difficult for the opponents, and Jwala is strong at the nets,” says Diju.
In 2009 they won the Grand Prix Gold title in Chinese Taipei. They were the finalists at the World Super Series and the Indian Open and also entered the quarterfinal of the World Badminton Championships the same year.
Diju’s spinal injury in 2011 interrupted the pair’s ride to fame and put him out of action for six months. “Our ranking fell from six to 85. However, I have to thank my physiotherapists,” says Diju. “Once we reached the semi-finals of China Masters, I started thinking of Olympics qualification.”
The Olympics, says Diju, has brought him attention like never before. “Now there are banners in Ramanattukara wishing me luck. People are just more aware when it is the Olympics,” he says. He exchanges notes with Vimal Kumar on gearing up for the event.
Diju’s schedule after the Olympics is yet to be drawn, but he has blocked the dates in September for a personal milestone. “I am getting married in September. The bride is Soumya Vipanchika, a doctor from Vatakara who works in Thrissur.”
Whether in getting back to the circuit, debuting at an event considered the sporting pinnacle or opening an important personal chapter, Diju takes on everything with poise.