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Karan-Arjun story of Indian badminton: Separated by injury, squabble a bit and realise they’re better together

With guidance from coach Manu Attri, a 2016 Olympian, MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila have found direction after a difficult phase.

The pressure of keeping pace with the giant strides of World No.1s, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, isn’t particularly daunting for India’s No.2 doubles pairing of MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila. For Arjun, returning from injury and with shaky confidence, the last few months had felt tentative.

“It’s because of the sort of human beings Satwik and Chirag are. They might be No.1 but they always understand what we are going through when we win or lose. After we won the title at Uganda, Satwik came up to me and said ‘Arju bhai, back to winning ways’. He was so happy for us,” Arjun recalls.

On Thursday, Dhruv-Arjun would defeat the Grimley twins, Christopher & Matthew, 21-17, 21-19 to make quarters of the Spanish Masters. This was in the week following their title run to the Polish International Challenge last Sunday.

“I guess we’ve struck form at the right time with the Thomas Cup coming up,” he added. The 2022 bunch still retains a WhatsApp group called ‘World Champions’, according to Arjun, and he says they carry the belief of that tag every time they step onto the court.

While his career might look on track now, the start of 2024 was a horror. An early exit from the Nationals after being defeated by the current champions, had been a wake-up call for the pairing, after Arjun spent almost a year tending to his spate of injuries, majorly the ankle.

It was a difficult time for both, as Dhruv was eager to resume, and Arjun was adamant he would regain complete fitness before playing at a high level – which would take time. “I totally understood Dhruv’s impatience, because he wasn’t getting to play. He would keep messaging, asking how are you, when will you be back. To be honest it irritated me a lot, because I was out of answers. But it was tough for us both,” he recalls.

He would spend two months rehabbing diligently at Bangalore’s specialist facility Invictus, referred to him by HS Prannoy. “It helped being away from the stress and tension of Hyderabad and Kerala. They were like friends or family to me, and how they made me feel comfortable. I still follow their online program,” he says of last winter.

It was gnawing at him that he might be holding Dhruv back from progressing, as the latter was getting decent results in mixed doubles. “There were question marks on our future. So I told him to go ahead and try partnering with someone else. He tried, but after a month he messaged saying, ‘I’m not playing with anyone else.’ I was sure I didn’t want to get into a partnership muddle while still unfit. I was determined to not get frustrated by the delay and told Dhruv clearly. If he wanted to play with me, I was here for him. If not, he had freedom to partner others. He took a chance,” Arjun recalls.

Testy reunion

It wasn’t a sweet, sentimental reunion. Things got testy even.

“Nothing was working out. Something was not the same. We both had attitude problems and tempers flared,” he says. It’s when 2016 Olympian Manu Attri stepped in as coach, and brought both his brains and easy Meerut wit to guide the duo. Arjun recalls: “We had to accept weaknesses, move on from the negative. Earlier practice sessions would always be debates on whether I’m right or Dhruv is right. Manu being the third person, brought clarity. We stopped doubting ourselves and question marks disappeared.”

The duo would tiff because upon resumption Dhruv wanted to play in the Super 1000s and 750s where they got entries but lost in the first round. Then Arjun put his foot down.

“I wasn’t confident enough to execute my strokes. We finally dropped 3 crucial weeks of All England, German and Swiss and had a good training stint with Manu.”

It helped because the skilled former player could guide them in their style – Arjun’s speed and Dhruv’s shot execution, vastly different from Satwik-Chirag’s power game.

A 21-19 deciding set loss against Chinese pair in Asian Team Championship gave them confidence that all wasn’t lost
On Thursday they would play identical twins. “It wasn’t disorienting because they play similar styles. It was like playing two of the same player,” Arjun says. The duo beat a bunch of upcoming talents from Chinese Taipei in the last week.

Poised to work on their learnings, Arjun-Dhruv sought inspiration from the Indian women’s Asian championship team win.

“If the girls have done it, we can do it too. The fire and inspiration was back. For me, it was confusing at the start, but now I can happily say, we are back on track.”

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