Has the greasepaint started to run?

Indian badminton, these days, is attracting attention. But, the year 2018 has served a warning in that there has not been a single major title from singles. If this signal is not taken seriously by the authorities, the performances in the coming year could get worse.

Prakash Padukone, on arrival in Bombay on March 26, 1980, after his triumph in the All-England championship. Admiring the handsome trophy is his fiancee Ujjwala Karkal.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Today, badminton catches more eyeballs in the country than it did four decades ago. Thanks to the visibility of its performing stars, the projection of their achievements in all mediums of communication, the creamy layer of Indian badminton is reaping the benefits of technology and dissemination of information, something their predecessors could not.

A glance at the rear-view mirror shows how Prakash Padukone hit international headlines beginning 1979, winning the Swedish and Danish Open titles, and going on to add the 1980 All-England crown before becoming the first winner of the World Cup in 1981.

Padukone, the touch artist and master of deception, carried forward the legacy of the likes of Prakash Nath, Devendra Mohan, Nandu Natekar, Dinesh Khanna and Suresh Goel. Prakash Nath was the first Indian finalist of the All-England Championships in 1947 while Dinesh Khanna won the 1965 Asian Championship.

Padukone gave Indian badminton the identity that it lacked. He dealt with the challenges of players from Indonesia, led by the flamboyant Liem Swie King and served by the legendary Rudy Hartono, besides those from England and Denmark, before the Chinese made their foray.

There was no official world ranking during those days. But Padukone was considered among the leading title-aspirants every time he played in select international events during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The domestic structure of badminton was nothing to speak about. The government support for the game was also limited and so were the resources available for quality training. Indian shuttles were heavy and brittle, thereby making it difficult for the Indian players to fare well in international events where lighter shuttles were in use. Overall, the equipment left much to be desired.

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Pullela Gopichand with the All-England silverware after triumphing in 2001. But it is as a coach that Gopi has earned more name and fame!   -  AP

 

Riding on enormous talent and unshakable determination to beat the odds in pursuing what he loved, Padukone gave it all. An introvert, he let his racquet do the talking and went on to capture some elite titles.

In the absence of an official world championship, the winner of the All-England Championships was deemed to be the World champion. Padukone reached the final again in 1981, but lost to King who avenged the loss suffered the previous year.

It was under Padukone that India made the 1988 Thomas Cup (eight-team) finals for the first time. Thereafter, it took 12 years for India to reach that stage again.

India’s continued inability to do well in the prestigious team events, both men and women, is mainly due to its poor doubles teams. The focus has remained on producing singles players. More often than not, these singles players have enjoyed longevity and relative success. As a result, the growth of doubles has suffered. Even after engaging specialist doubles coaches from overseas, the results are far too slow in showing up.

The retirement of Padukone left a void in the men’s singles. Vimal Kumar appeared to have taken over briefly before Dipankar Bhattacharya emerged as the first man to represent India in the Olympics when the sport was introduced in 1992. He retained his place in the 1996 edition as well.

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A file picture of Parupalli Kashyap and Saina Nehwal (right) taken in June 2004. They were full of promise at that time, but no one would have imagined that they would rise to such lofty heights, especially Saina.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

 

This was also the time when P. Gopi Chand was making a mark. A serious knee-injury suffered at the 1994 National Games in Pune pushed him back and let Dipankar hog the limelight. However, Gopi’s comeback in 1995 coincided with Dipankar’s trouble with recurring injuries.

Gopi, with a steely resolve, overcame all challenges, dominated the national scene and went on to represent the country in the 2000 Olympics.

Gopi left the Prakash Padukone Academy and moved to the Sports Authority of India centre in Bangalore to train under Gangula Prasad. His relentless hard work finally brought him rewards and that too in the 2001 All England Championships. Beating all odds as well as challengers, Gopi raised the winner’s cup.

Though he never won anything major before and after this triumph, Gopi became a national hero. His demeanour stood out as he dealt with success in all humility. After all, no other Indian sportsman had achieved such a high after multiple knee surgeries.

Over the next five years, Gopi was a regular on the international circuit though he did not reach any final.

Before venturing into the phase that changed the landscape of Indian badminton, it is imperative to take a look at the women’s singles.

In contrast to the attention enjoyed by the men singles specialists, the women champions were far less heralded, as worthy international titles stayed beyond them.

Meena Shah was the first to stamp her authority on the national badminton scene by winning six straight singles titles from 1959. If the 1970s belonged to Ami Ghia (nine times), Madhumita Bisht (eight times) took over the reins in the 1980s.

The early part of the 1990s saw the rise of Manjusha Pawangadkar-Kanwar and P. V. V. Lakshmi. The era of Aparna Popat lasted from 1997 to 2005.

By the time Aparna reached the evening of her career, with injuries making it difficult for her to carry on, Saina Nehwal had emerged on the scene. Since then, Saina has been a constant, with P. V. Sindhu raising the bar further in terms of medals from all leading competitions.

P. V. Sindhu’s progress has been phenomenal, with her fighting spirit standing out the most.   -  PTI

 

In fact, Gopi’s decision to take up coaching was destined to change the way the world looked at Indian badminton.

Following the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Vimal Kumar made way for Gopi to take over as chief coach. Soon thereafter, Saina won the Philippines Open for her first major overseas title. It may be recalled that Saina first made her presence felt by upstaging an injured Aparna in the 2005 Satellite Open final in New Delhi.

A student of Gopi after learning the early tricks from his coach Mohammad Arif, Saina proved a trainer’s delight. She could work hard and follow instructions without questioning. Gopi’s emphasis was more on fitness and that was to bear fruit before long.

Saina’s steady rise coincided with the mushrooming of young talents, headed by P. Kashyap. Before long, the duo of B. Sai Praneeth and H. S. Prannoy became the first male Indians to reach the singles semifinals of the World Junior Championships.

Gradually, K. Srikanth moved from being a good doubles player to singles and the bench strength of India never looked so good.

Concurrently, doubles specialist Jwala Gutta was scripting history despite fighting a battle against the Badminton Association of India that was increasingly dictated by Gopi.

In the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Saina won the individual gold while the Jwala-Ashwini Ponnappa combination won the doubles gold. The pair made history by bringing India’s first doubles bronze medal from the World Championships in 2011.

Even in mixed doubles, with V. Diju, Jwala enjoyed international title success and became a vocal campaigner in highlighting the continued ill-treatment suffered by the doubles pairs at the hands of the BAI. She openly held Gopi responsible for the neglect of doubles since he focused solely on singles. The BAI’s continued apathy towards developing doubles pairs did not help matters. But Jwala fought on.

Even as Saina and later Sindhu caught the imagination of a new generation of badminton lovers, there were successes in men’s singles, too. Kashyap won the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold before the rise of Srikanth saw a number of Super Series titles.

As it turned out, Saina and Srikanth went on to hold the world No. 1 spot in singles. At present, Sindhu has the custody of the silver medals from the nationals, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships and Olympic Games.

The Premier Badminton League brings the top Indian players huge financial bonanzas. For others, it serves as a great opportunity to mingle with several top-ranked overseas players, and travel and train with them. Indeed, there are several takeaways for the young talents in various franchises from this league.

However, the year 2018 has served a warning. If this signal is not taken seriously by the authorities, the performances in the coming year could get worse.

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Kidambi Srikanth has ensured that the Indian men are not left behind with some breath-taking performances.   -  AP

 

This year, there has not been a single major title in singles. Saina’s gold at the expense of Sindhu at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games should not be seen as a major success since the standard of badminton among the participating countries is far from high. India was expected to monopolise the final spots in the women’s singles and it did.

The absence of a third singles player among the women is worrying. As Sindhu’s father Ramana points out, “Why haven’t we had a strong singles player after Saina and Sindhu in all these years? What does it show? Where are the doubles pairs? Why make Saina and Sindhu play doubles in major events when they have the responsibility of winning in singles?”

These are serious questions that need to be answered by the BAI. In spite of increased awareness, visibility of badminton players during live coverage of the World Tour and other major championships, there is a lack of standout talents.

Few sporting disciplines are backed as generously by the government as badminton. There have been a series of exposure tournaments, both in Europe and Asia from the junior level upwards. There is no dearth of opportunities, like the ones faced by several of their illustrious predecessors.

At home, it is a welcome step to increase the prize money of the national championships. This followed the decision to let the top players join the fray from the quarterfinal stage. Since these players are required to play in World Tour events to protect ranking points, it was a welcome move to bring back sought-after names at the closing stage of the national championships.

The way the crowd returned to watch the national finals in Nagpur reflected the eagerness of badminton lovers to make the most of the presence of Saina, Sindhu, Srikanth and Prannoy on the badminton court.

With the stakes in Indian badminton rising, there are plenty of former players, now engaged in running coaching academies, raising the issue of not getting their due.

“Ironically, the problem begins once the players we produce perform well in various age-group events in the nationals. Should our player beat a rival from the Gopi Chand Academy, he or she is promptly lured away to Hyderabad. The parents obviously fall for the label of the academy owned by the chief coach. We feel helpless and disheartened,” said a former member of the Indian Thomas Cup team.

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Doubles specialist Jwala Gutta has always put her best foot forward while fighting for the rights of the players.   -  V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

 

Another former national player-turned-coach pointed out, “Have you ever noticed that only coaches from Hyderabad are sent with the Indian team? What fault have we committed? Why are our services not used? It will also be an opportunity for other coaches to interact with overseas players and coaches and exchange ideas.”

Indeed, there are several issues that face Indian badminton at the moment. Truly, the rising profile of the sport has made several stakeholders question the selection of players, coaches and the special treatment extended to certain sections.

For now, there appears a clear stagnation in the performances, but that is an integral part of any sport. What is worrying is the continued absence of noticeably talented players, barring Lakshya Sen, in both singles and doubles.

It is now time to stop gloating over the successes of a few. The BAI should see the writing on the wall. The need of the hour is to make the most of the attention the sport attracts from all quarters and multiply the gains with an all-inclusive approach.