When Ajay Jayaram began his senior international career in 2006, Indians shuttlers winning medals at majors or international tournaments was a rarity. Sixteen years later when the 34-year-old decided to retire, it is at a time when Indians are not just challenging the best but have become the benchmark in the international circuit.
A Mumbaikar, Jayaram was one of the shuttlers influential in the transformation of Indian badminton. It was the platform they made that helped the rise of Kidambi Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth, HS Prannoy and now, Lakshya Sen.
Though he did not win medals at Olympics or world championships, Jayaram, along with Parupalli Kashyap, were the men’s singles mainstays for around a decade despite not being a product of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, from where Saina Nehwal and PV have Sindhu emerged.
“It’s very positive to see how beautifully Indian badminton has evolved over the years. I am so glad to have witnessed such a transformation, been part and contributed to that progress,” said Jayaram, who retired on Saturday, the day another Indian—Sindhu—reached yet another final (Swiss Open), eventually winning it.
“Now, each new generation comes with a belief that even they can be the best. That change in mindset, in the attitude is one of the most wonderful things to have happened. Indians are setting new benchmarks which are revolutionising the sport.”
The tall, lanky shuttler was the top ranked from India back in the day along with good friend Kashyap, regularly featuring in the top-30 before reaching a high of world No. 13 in 2017. His career highlights include beating Tokyo Olympics champion Viktor Axelsen and former world No. 2 (current No. 4) Chou Tien Chen before losing the 2015 Korea Open (Superseries) final to then reigning world champion Chen Long.
“That was one of the best tournaments I played,” said Jayaram. “Getting past Chou is one of the finest games I have played. Beating Axelsen, who is one of the legends of the sport, on multiple occasions has been a highlight for me.”
Jayaram, who initially trained under Tom John and later with Anup Sridhar in Bengaluru, also reached the finals of the Dutch Open four times, three consecutively. He won in 2014 and 2015 and almost made it a hattrick before finishing runner-up to Wang Tzu Wei. He was also part of the victorious Hyderabad squad that won the now defunct Indian Badminton League in 2013 and the Delhi team that won the first edition of the Premier Badminton League in 2016.
However, his biggest heartbreak came when he was pipped at the post by former world No. 6 Kashyap on the last day of qualification for the London Olympics. “As an athlete we always seek to achieve more. It’s always easy to list out what you’ve missed in hindsight but considering the challengers I faced, the path I have had to carve almost always on my own, I am quite proud and happy with what I managed to achieve,” said Jayaram who last played at the India Open in January where he lost in the first round.
“In sport and life it’s crucial to accept the situation, move on and try to do better. I definitely didn’t let that (missing Olympics) define me, making sure that was not something I am going to hold on to for life.”
Injuries also halted Jayaram’s career at crucial junctures. In 2016, Jayaram underwent a shoulder surgery. Weeks after achieving his career-high ranking, a recurring hamstring injury, which also affected his groin and foot, kept stalling his career, first in 2017 and then in 2018, putting him out of action for months. Just when he was finding his rhythm, Covid-19 stalled the international calendar.
“I was training through the pandemic, hopeful, wanting to continue playing and make that comeback but after a point it just got to me,” said Jayaram, who also lists shuttlers Anand Pawar, Aditi Mutatkar and Dane Hans-Kristian Vittinghus as his friends.
With rankings frozen by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) due to the pandemic and no tournaments scheduled, it became increasingly difficult for lower ranked players to attempt a way to the top. “I felt like this was the right time to make a switch and move on beyond badminton,” said Jayaram.
On to academics
As interest in the sport waned, Jayaram started looking at other avenues. Academically inclined as a child, especially in mathematics and physics, Jayaram decided to pick up books again. Having completed his B.Com from Mumbai’s RA Podar College of Commerce and Economics a decade back, he decided to try his hand at MBA, giving GMAT in November. The 34-year-old achieved a score of 710, enough for finding a seat in elite B-Schools abroad.
“Since I wanted to see myself in India in the future, I felt an Indian B-School would be the best option. So Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad was the best option as it emphasises on diversity. I applied, got selected for the interview and got the confirmation with a 50% scholarship at the end of January. ISB was always in my list of institutions that I would have loved to be a part of,” said Jayaram, who is also a self-trained artist.
By pursuing ISB’s flagship Post Graduate Programme (PGP), Jayaram followed the example of another Indian elite sportsman. Former India captain Viren Rasquinha quit hockey at the age of 28 to pursue management from the same institute and is currently the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ).
“Prior to applying, I had a word with Viren because I remember it made news when he got into ISB way back in 2008. I spoke to him about getting some idea about how ISB was, whether it was worth it and everything. He was very supportive, encouraging and completely for it. That really pushed me in that direction.”
If one transition wasn’t enough, Jayaram is also getting married on April 6 to Benglauru resident Soumya Ravi, currently a teacher but who will soon be joining a start-up as product manager.