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Neighbours, on and off the court

Manjit Singh Khwairakpam (left) and Dingku Singh Konthoujam after their 21-14, 21-11 win over Nitin Kumar and Harsh Rana.

POST THEIR 21-14, 21-11 win over the pair of Nitin Kumar and Harsh Rana in the Yonex Sunrise 28th Smt. Krishna Khaitan Memorial All India Junior Ranking Prize Money Badminton Tournament at Tau Devi Lal Stadium, the top seed men’s doubles pair of Manjit Singh Khwairakpam and Dingku Singh Konthoujam bowed towards the wooden court. The Manipuri duo belong to the same village called Ningthoukhong in Bishnupur district and with their village having only one cemented court, every time the top ranked U-19 pair in the country plays in a tournament, they make it a point to bow to the wooden courts.

“Both of us stay in the same neighbourhood in our village and we started playing badminton together at the cemented court in our village. When we started playing in 2010, about 10-15 players used to play badminton in the village and sometimes, we had to wait for our turn to play. There was one national player named Santosh from our village and he told us to play doubles together. Since we stay close to each other, we did not face problems in playing as a doubles pair but finding opponents was tough and we would call up different singles player to play with us,” recalls 18-year-old Khwairakpam.

While Khwairakpam’s father Ranjit Singh is a crane operator in Loktak Lake development Authority and takes part in the cleaning process of the lake, Konthoujam’s father K Shyam Sunder is a farmer. While Konthoujam’s mother would sell fish at the village market to support the family, Konthoujam’s time was spent in training with Khwairakpam at the village court.

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The duo would win the silver medal in the U-13 category in the Manipur nationals in 2014 before competing in sub-junior all India ranking tournaments. In 2016, the duo won the U-17 title in All India Junior ranking Tournament at Bengaluru before claiming the silver medal in U-17 junior nationals at Udupi, a feat which helped them to be selected for the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad.

In 2017, the duo made one final appearance in All India U-19 Ranking Tournament and semifinal appearance in U-19 Junior Nationals at Guwahati before claiming their first U-19 national ranking tournament at Tirupur where they also scored a win over Dhruv Kapila and Sai Krishna, the then top ranked U-19 pair in India in 2018. Last year also saw the Manipuri duo reaching the quarterfinals in Asian Junior Badminton Championships at Jakarta, where they lost to the top seed pair of Di Zijan and Wang Chang of China.

“When we won the silver medal in the junior nationals in 2016, my parents and Khwairakpam’s parents were very excited and told all the village residents about our win. We always wanted to play doubles and when we were selected for the Gopichand Academy, it meant that we had to leave our village. It was tough initially but with time, both of us learnt to stay away. Even though we had known and played with each other since long, we faced some differences when we got proper doubles training at Hyderabad.”

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“After rectifying and a lot of apologies (laughs), we learnt how to play doubles the right way. Winning the title at Tirupur was special for us as we scored a win over Kapila/Sai in the quarters. Competing in Asian Junior Championships also helped us to understand our game better and even though we lost in the quarters, the whole village celebrated,” shares 18-year-old Konthoujam.

This year, the duo has reached in the final of All India U-19 Ranking Tournament in Chennai and also reached the quarter-finals in the Senior Ranking Tournament at Bengaluru, where they lost to Kapila/Sai Krishna. Gopicahnd Academy coach Arun Vishnu believes that the duo has been improving with time.

“When both of them came to the academy, they did not have much idea about the strategies of doubles. But since they came form the same village and played together, they had good understanding of each other’s game. They also got opportunity to train with senior players in the camps and learnt a lot. While they are good in attacking and good in keeping the shuttle low, they need to work on their defense,” shares Vishnu.

As for Khwairakpam and Konthoujamm, they still remember their meeting with the duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, India’s only doubles pair to win a Super 500 Badminton title.

“Rankireddy likes to play close to the net and I also manage the net play while Khwairakpam manages the court better. At the academy, we train with them as their sparring partners and we often seek tips from them. Last week also, we met them and spent some time talking to them. Hopefully we can play like them one day,” says Konthoujam.