On 11 December, para badminton player Manisha Ramadass received a call quite out of the blue. At the other end was her idol, Saina Nehwal, who had inspired her to pick up the racquet. Ramadass was all smiles, her Sunday morning was made.
“It was the first time I spoke to her. I told her that she was the reason why I had decided to play badminton as a kid. She asked me to work hard, be confident and believe in my abilities. And never give up in any situation during matches,” Ramadass says.
The call was the perfect surprise for the 17-year-old, even after the impressive breakthrough year that she’s had. Earlier in March, she made her international debut and just nine months later, she had finished a stellar season with 11 gold medals and four bronzes in the women’s singles and doubles, and in mixed doubles. It won her the BWF Female Para Badminton Player of the Year award in Bangkok on 5 December. The world has taken notice of this prodigious talent.
“It’s a prestigious award and I tried to keep calm until l received it. Honestly, I couldn’t quite believe I had won,” Ramadass says.
Until two years ago, the teenager played on the domestic circuit alongside able-bodied players. At the time, she had little idea about the world of para sports. She would regularly win at the district and the state level tournaments, but fell short at the Nationals. It was perhaps the only time she took note of the disability in her right arm.“I am a forceps baby and my right shoulder was affected during birth. I couldn’t straighten out my arm earlier and had to undergo three surgeries to improve my condition,” she says.
“The disability didn’t sink in until I saw other players. Since I cannot lift my arm as much as the others, it affects my balance and in turn, also the power that I am able to generate, especially during jump smashes. But it’s a lot better now after the surgeries,” she adds.
The disability was never a deterrent for Ramadass right through her growing years. At Shree Niketan School in Thiruvallur, she would be found as often on the sports field as in the classroom. “I used to play a number of sports and my teachers really encouraged me. I cannot say I am a very good student, then again, I’m not that bad either,” Ramadass says.
At the age of ten, she decided to take up badminton. It was all fun and games for the first couple of years. Her parents, Sumita and Ramadass, asked her to focus on the game and handed her a deadline to show improvement. A year later, in 2017, she played her first tournament. Her dedication towards the game was evident and the family realised that it was only a matter of time before she would start winning. “My parents have done a lot for me. Even when my father lost his job as a banker, he picked up small assignments as a civil contractor to ensure that I could continue playing badminton,” she says.
By 2018, she had joined forces with her current coach, S. Ramkumar, whom she credits for fine-tuning her game. She was soon beating the same players she had once lost to. Her life changed when she heard of para badminton events in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic slowed her progress momentarily, but at her first para nationals in 2021, she won gold in both the singles and doubles events.
“That win helped me qualify for international events and it was a good opportunity to start playing on the circuit, especially with the World Championships scheduled for 2022 and qualification tournaments for the 2024 Paralympics in 2023,” she says.
Once she decided to turn professional, she started dedicating close to eight hours for training. Her days would begin at 4.30am, and after a fitness session at the SDAT Athletics ground, she would train at Ramkumar’s academy. Following some rest in the afternoon, she would be back for the evening session.
In March this year, Ramadass made her international debut at the Spanish Para Badminton International. With no sponsors backing her at the time, her father had to fund her travel. By the end of it, she returned home with two gold (singles and doubles) and a bronze (mixed doubles). “I went with the mindset that I wanted to return with a medal, any medal really, though I honestly didn’t expect to win. That tournament did wonders for my confidence,” she says.
She was soon making friends on the circuit. In Sukant Kadam and veteran Pramod Bhagat, she not only found doubles partners, but also mentors who would guide her before key matches. Over the next three months, she played four tournaments in Brazil, Bahrain, Dubai and Canada, where she bagged seven gold medals and one bronze across events.
A knee injury ruled her out of the next tournament in Ireland. It was followed by two months of rest. She returned to competition in August without sufficient match practice, but still picked up two medals. And in the season finale World Championships, she picked up a gold in the singles and a bronze in the doubles. She signed off the year as the World No. 1 in both the women’s singles (SU5 category) as well as the doubles (SL3-SU5 category), alongside Mandeep Kaur.
Next season, Ramadass wants to focus on the Asian Para Games and on qualification for the Paralympics. However, for now, the Commerce student soaking in all the adulation coming her way.
“It’s been an incredible year and I celebrated with my friends and supporters once home. A lot of things have changed today. When I’m walking to the stadium, people stop and ask me - are you that Manisha Ramadass? And at school, I was really surprised when a few students asked for my autograph. I didn’t realise I am famous and that my achievements are being recognised. It makes me really happy because I must be doing something right,” she says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.