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Aparna is more single-minded now

KOZHIKODE, JULY 24. Aparna Balan was beginning to get bored. With success.

She didn't even lose a single match for a whole year in the National junior badminton doubles circuit. But as all the doubles players — not just in badminton — the world over would tell you in unison, they are made to feel second-class citizens by the singles champions. "To be honest, I was starting to get disheartened at being labelled as a doubles player,'' the 18-year-old told The Hindu here on Saturday, just a few days after arriving from Korea, where she represented India in the Asian junior badminton championship. ``Of course, I did enjoy my triumphs in doubles.''

But it was the loss to Aditi Mutatkar in the junior singles semifinal of the Union Bank prize money tournament at Bangalore in the last week of June that prompted her think about her career seriously.

Aparna, a Plus-two student at the Zamorin's HSS here, lost the match in straight games. And it was her second straight semifinal loss to the Maharashtra girl within a week.

``I had lost to her in the Pune tournament. That too in straight games,'' she said.

``But the loss at Bangalore made me more focussed. I knew that I was capable of achieving more. And I wanted to win the singles title in my next tournament — Krishna Khaitan all-India tourney in Chennai — at any cost.''

And she did. And, of course, she picked up her customary doubles title besides adding the mixed doubles title to her kitty. ``I am proud to be the first ever player in the tournament's history to record a triple. But it was of course the singles crown that mattered most.''

And, it was also a sweet revenge for Aparna as she defeated Aditi in the singles final.

The win ensured that she would remain India's No. 1 in the junior girls' singles as well as in doubles. She moved to the No. 1 spot in singles last November after the Tarachand all-India tournament at Panchkula, Haryana, where she won both the singles and doubles titles. ``The win in Chennai was much more gratifying because the competition wasn't that strong in Haryana,'' said the former National sub-junior champion.

It was a disappointing outing for Aparna, and the Indian team, in Korea. ``None of us could make an impression in what was a very tough field.''

She, however, has a few good shows to her credit in the international arena, like the bronze medal she won at the Asian junior girls' team championship in Kuala Lumpur in 2002. She was a quarterfinalist at the Asian schools championship in 2000 and played in the doubles finals of the Singapore Open in 2001 in both under-17 and under-15 categories. In 2002, she reached the doubles pre-quarterfinals of the World junior championship in Pretoria, South Africa. She was in the senior Indian team that won the gold at the SAF Games in Islamabad recently.

Aparna, arguably the finest female talent in badminton to come out of Kerala in recent time, knows that she's a natural doubles player. A quick mover on the court, she has the ability to make a difference in a doubles encounter on her own with her serves and returns. She's so good at doubles that she can partner anyone and can still win (``though I enjoy teaming with Saina Nehwal and Dhanya Nair"). But now she wants to concentrate more on singles.

Her coach for the last eight years, A. Nazar, has also advised her to do that. ``She has the potential to develop into a good singles player,'' he said. ``But she should be willing to work harder.''

Aparna, a huge fan of the other and more gifted Aparna of Indian badminton, Popat, is planning to move to Bangalore for further training. Her immediate plans include qualifying for the Commonwealth and World junior championships.

"Then I want to play at the Olympics,'' she says. In singles, preferably.

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