Column | Future of Indian badminton looks rosy

Doing the country proud
P V Sindhu proudly displays her World Championships gold medal, while coach Pullela Gopichand looks on. AFP
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One common strand that comes through during interviews with the players in the national cricket team is the impact that India’s victory in 1983 World Cup had on their mindsets and careers. The fact that they grew up seeing their country as world champions made them believe that they were second to none and this attitude is reflected whenever they take the field. This has helped the national side to come back from situations where defeat appeared a very distinct possibility and to demonstrate the skill of “killer instinct” that was seen to be lacking in the past. The positive effect of the first World Cup win continues to enthuse youngsters all over the country even today and is one of the prime reasons for India retaining a level of supremacy in cricket.

If one looks at the history of Indian sports, it would be seen that the country had won major tiles in two other events during the 1980s. Indian hockey team won the gold medal in Moscow Olympics in 1980, but much of sheen was taken away from this achievement as none of the western block countries, who were the top sides in this sport, took part in this Games. Further, the decline of Indian hockey had started from 1976 onwards and the national side fared poorly in all other World Championships since 1975. Hence the victory in Moscow failed to excite the followers of sports in the country.

Padukone's hstoric triumph

The second win in a top international tournament was achieved by Prakash Padukone when he won the All England Open Badminton Championships in 1980, followed by victory in World Cup the next year in Kuala Lumpur. During that period, All England Championships was considered as the equivalent of Wimbledon tennis championship and the winner was acknowledged as the unofficial world champion. Hence Padukone’s win in London was greeted with jubilation by the followers of this sport in India, who were, unfortunately, rather small in numbers.

Epochal win
Prakash Padukone became the first Indian to win the All England Open in 1980. Photo: Manorama Archives

Hailing from the small town of Kundapura in coastal Karnataka, Padukone attracted the attention of sports lovers when he won both the senior and junior national titles in 1972. He did not look back after that and soon emerged as the unchallenged champion in the country. However, he chose not to rest on his laurels and started playing in tournaments outside India, which helped to sharpen his game. Though his initial years in the international circuit did not yield good returns, Padukone made headlines when he won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton in 1978.

Buoyed by this success Padukone set his eyes on the world stage. He won the Swedish Open and Denmark Open championships in 1980, which preceded the All England Championships. His consistent performances in the international arena and ability to hold his ground even against the best in the world had aroused the expectations of fans of this sport in India. He mowed down all opposition in style and attained the pinnacle of glory when he defeated Liam Swee King of Indonesia in the final to lift the All England title in June, 1980.

Padukone took the decision to move to Denmark in 1982 so that he could utilise the facilities there and train with his friend Morten Frost. Padukone did not win any major international championship after making this shift, while Frost went on to win almost all major tournaments during the fast half of the 1980s. This prompted many observers to conclude that this move ended up helping Frost more, but Padukone himself felt that the shift helped to extend his career by at least three-to-four years. Besides, this stint exposed him to newer and better training methods, both for maintaining peak physical fitness as well as for sharpening his game. After bidding adieu to playing days, Padukone started a badminton academy seeking to impart training to up-and-coming players.

The contribution that a world champion can make towards boosting the popularity of a game as well as in its development in a country can be seen from a comparative study between tennis and badminton in India. In the early 1970s, Vijay Amritraj was considered as one of the bright young talents in the game so much so that he was bracketed alongside Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors as the “ABC of world tennis”. The whole country was enraptured when he won the Volvo Classic tournament in 1973 beating Connors in the final and the Indian government even amended the statute to facilitate import of the car that he won by waiving off customs duty. However, Amritraj failed to fulfil his early promise and except for couple of appearances in the last eight stage of Grand Slams, he could not evolve into a top bracket player in the international circuit. Neither could he anchor India to a victory in Davis Cup and the much promised tennis revolution failed to take off in the country. Given this background, it is not surprising that India is yet to produce a top singles player till date, despite the fact that this game was more popular than badminton till the mid to late 1980s in the country.

Trailblazer

However, the success of Padukone ensured that there was a brighter future for badminton in India. One of the players fortunate to be trained in the academy set up by Padukone was a bright eyed youngster named Pullela Gopichand. Born in Hyderabad, Gopichand, like most of the other children of his neighbourhood, showed interest in cricket before he was forced to shift to badminton by his elder brother. He won the national singles title for five straight years from 1996 onwards, before emulating his mentor by winning the All England Championships in 2001, thus becoming the second Indian to do so.

Gopichand’s success can be attributed to the better training facilities that he could access through the centre set up by Padukone. This helped him to attain physical fitness on par with players from other countries, besides drawing inspiration from the achievements of the great man. It might have been this realisation that prompted him to create his larger contribution to the game in the country through the Gopichand Badminton Academy, which he set up in Hyderabad after his retirement. This academy has produced champion players such as Saina Nehwal, P V Sindhu and Kidambi Srikkanth, all of who brought great laurels to the nation.

On top of the world
P V Sindhu broke the final jinx to become the first Indian to win the World Championships gold medal. Reuters

It is certain that the success that Sindhu has achieved during the last three years, starting with the silver medal she won in 2016 Rio Olympics, would spur more youngsters to take to this game. When she fell in the final of the World Championship in 2017 and 2018, doubts were cast whether she was suffering from “choking” at the last hurdle. But her convincing victory in the World Championships at Basel last week has put paid to such apprehensions and shown that she is built of stuff that champions are made of. Sindhu hails from a middle class family and has reached the top only through sheer hard work and complete dedication to her craft, which makes her a perfect role model for aspiring youngsters.

Apart from the much acclaimed success of Sindhu, some more evidence of the bright prospects of badminton in the country emerged during the recent Worlds. The first among them was Sai Praneeth winning the bronze medal in the World Championship, thus bringing home a medal in men’s category after 36 years. More important was the fact that Praneeth, who is ranked 15th, punched way above his weight and defeated more accomplished players en route to the last four stage. This achievement certainly augers well for men’s badminton in India, which has been short of success stories of late.

The second one was the exceptional performance of national para badminton side in the World Championships, where they bagged 12 medals. This splendid show stands as testimony to the popularity of the game in the country as well as to the facilities on offer for players falling under this category. A sport can claim to have universal appeal only when equal opportunities are available for all those wanting to take part in it. It is to the credit of authorities in India that they could provide amenities to those who, though differently abled, are equally keen to take part and contribute to the sport.

The last one is the wonderful gesture of Gopichand in making available the services of Kim Ji-Hyun, the coach from Korea, who played a significant role in fashioning the success of Sindhu at Basel. It is well known that coaches tend to be protective and even possessive about their wards, guarding them diligently so as to deny access to advice from other sources. Gopichand has shown that he is an exception to this theory by seeking out the assistance of Kim to ensure that nothing stood between Sindhu and gold medal in the World Championships. In doing so, Gopichand has set a golden standard that coaches in all sporting activities should seek to attain.

It is rare that our nation gets to celebrate a victory in a sport other than cricket. The feeling is all the more exhilarating as the foundation of badminton appears strong, thus creating great hope about its future prospects. Let us all look forward to many more such sweet victories in the years to come.

Well done Sindhu, Sai Praneeth and members of the para badminton squad. You have done the nation proud.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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