Slow and steady sounds good in theory, but on the field and court, fast and furious does it, say the new sporting icons from Hyderabad, who are acing it in their games, reminding others that the land of biriyani has more winners than tennis star Sania Mirza and Olympians PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal.
The toast of this sporting season is Sreeja Akula, the 25-year-old table tennis national champion from the city, who will receive the prestigious Arjuna Award on November 30. With about 13 years of professional training behind her, she put the state back on the TT map this year, after Mir Khasim Ali won the national championship in 1964.
The first woman from Telangana to be ranked India No.1, she had also romped home with gold at the Commonwealth Games 2022.
“The nationals have always been my nemesis. I won every match in the under-19 Youth Category, throughout all these years to snag the top four rankings, but would always bungle at the national championship,” she says, on breaking the jinx in April 2022.
It takes more than just practice to make it as a pro. As an eight-year-old, Akula suffered from poor immunity, and that’s why her father Praveen Kumar enrolled her in sports in 2009 to boost her health.
“A few initial wins at the school and district level motivated me to take table tennis seriously,” she says. Akula, who trained under coach Somnath Ghosh at his academy in Kukatpally, also keeps herself motivated through sessions with her mental health counsellor to keep things in perspective without stressing over wins and losses.
Downing glasses full of beetroot juice first thing in the morning as part of her training for the Asian Games in September 2023, Akula’s next big target is to raise Rs 40 lakh to meet her sporting expenses.
Like Akula, badminton players Venkata Harshavardhan, 21, and Doddavarapu Achyut Aditya, 22, are also treading the path to glory, following their seniors Nehwal and Sindhu. The shuttlers, who have been playing as a team for the last five years, clocked in their first big success at the Saint-Denis Reunion Open 2022 in France this July.
“We make great badminton buddies as we have a synergetic body language,” says the duo, who has been training at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad for three years now. At present, they are prepping for their next big tournament, the Al-Sharif Group Bahrain International Challenge, to be held on November 29.
Winning at times comes with a sacrifice. To realise their dreams of grabbing the spotlight on the global stage, the two put their academics on the back burner (both pursuing engineering in Hyderabad), “Our eyes are set on the three 3Cs—cardio, conditioning and correcting our mistakes,” say the shuttlers, on pumping in their blood and sweat eight hours a day for the game, as they pool in their savings Rs 15 lakh each year to be able to afford to play abroad.
The tough part? Aditya says everything in life is easy compared to consuming whey protein as part of his diet. “I alternate between the seven flavours of whey across the week, but it still doesn’t help,” he quips. Harsha says homesickness hits him hard.
Meanwhile, Sahil Tavora of the Hyderabad FC (Football Club) is under the spotlight. Having attended training camps at Liverpool and Brazil, the attacking midfielder played two matches for Hyderabad FC in the 2019-20 season, which increased to 10 appearances in the 2020-21 Hero ISL season. Now, the 27-year-old is training his guns for the Indian Super League finale at Jamshedpur on November 27.
Winning in the ISL final last season was a sporting high he can never forget. What about a low? “Tearing the cruciate ligament in my knee at the age of 18 and stalling football for eight months,” he says. Tavora and his team members are now training under international coach Borja Herrera from Spain. What’s the takeaway from the training for Tavora? “Don’t just play football. Live it 24x7,” says the dribbler. Flick-on, Tavora.