Mathias Boe's emotions are all over the place. It’s the morning after India's first Thomas Cup title in the tournament's 73-year history and Boe, the coach of the Indian doubles team, is still gathering his feelings on a Monday morning. “I had a late dinner, very little sleep. I’m tired. My body is sore. I’m a bit exhausted mentally. But this is the greatest feeling ever,” he says from Bangkok.
The man from Denmark thought he was done with this rollercoaster of emotions. At the end of last year, the 41-year-old thought he was done with badminton. His contract to train Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had ended following the Tokyo Olympics. The 2012 Olympics silver medalist and 2016 Thomas Cup winner had already retired three years ago, and with the last loose end in coaching tied up, he wanted to try his hand at other things. There was a business in property development in Dubai, and a bunch of smart investments in a red-hot stock market. He even built up a bit of a following on an investment strategy podcast he hosted.
“I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with badminton,” he says. “It has given so much but also taken so much. It’s a bit sadistic. All my life has revolved around this. It’s restricted me in my living. You are non-stop thinking what you have to improve. There’s a lot of self-criticism. And then there are defeats. The lows after a tough defeat are things that will haunt you forever. I’m sure I’ll remember on my deathbed the four match points I lost at the 2010 All England final. These are scars that you deliberately plant on your soul,” he says.
How Satwik and Chirag won from multiple match points down
The freshest scar had been the Tokyo Olympics. He and Chirag and Satwik had pushed themselves to the limit in preparation. Then despite being the only pair to beat a Chinese Taipei pair who would go on to win the Tokyo Games, they would be eliminated in the group stage by an unlucky permutation. Boe was fairly happy to step away. “I enjoyed having a lot of free time not doing much but focusing on my business. I was enjoying life and doing all the things I couldn’t do when playing. Relax. Eat a little more food. Have a little more wine and not think too much,” he says.
Just as he settled into a cosy expatriate lifestyle, he got a call from a familiar number. “I was probably bronzing in the pool when I got the call from Chirag. I had stayed in touch with both of them (Satwik and Chirag) and Gopi (former national coach Pullela Gopichand). After the Olympics, I suggested they get a really good doubles coach. But for whatever reason it didn’t go through. And then Chirag asked me if I’d want to come back to coach if only for a limited time,” he recalls.
While Boe had one foot firmly planted in a post-badminton future, he admits the love part of his love-hate relationship with the sport kicked in. “I guess I realised I missed it. I knew my girlfriend (actor Taapsee Pannu) was busy in the summer with shooting, so, I thought why not. The lows in sport are the lowest in the world. That’s very hard but that’s also why the highs are as high as they are. The experience we had yesterday after creating the best result that they'd ever done; that high can't be compared to anything. That’s why you are willing to accept these scars. That’s how the love-hate part of the sport works,” he says.
When Boe returned, Chirag and Satwik had gone nine months without a foreign coach. Boe quickly focused on whipping them back into shape. “I think they were a little more unorganised than when I was last here,” he says. The Dane worked on intensifying practice sessions. “I prefer doing shorter, very intense sessions with 100 per cent focus and intensity rather than going three hours on court when you are just focused for half the time.”
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Boe’s theory is that the average badminton doubles match lasts only around 45 minutes, so, it makes no sense to train for four times that duration. “I had seen the problems of training for quantity in a lot of Indian players. They would play really well, but all of a sudden, completely lose focus for about 30 or 40 seconds. In that time, theory would have lost three or four points, which would be critical. You can play 39 minutes of really good badminton, but if you lose focus for one minute, you end up losing the match anyway,” he says.
There were no easy days of training. “He’s very different to other coaches,” says former doubles international Arun Vishnu. “He won't think twice about yelling at players,” he says.
For Boe, that discipline is non-negotiable. “I brought the training time on court down. Including a warm-up session, they would train for two-and-a-half hours in the morning and maybe one-hour sessions three times a week in the afternoon compared to the three-and-a-half and four-hour sessions they were doing earlier. But that’s why I can be very hard if suddenly they zone out in the session. I’m disciplined. "As an athlete, if you want to reach the top, you want to be extremely disciplined. We need the discipline and I need their brain to run at 100 per cent each minute so that they can think of how they can improve every second they are on court. If they lose focus, then I’m going to be shouting at them.”
But if the grind was hard, so were the expectations. “The Thomas Cup was always the target. It’s one of the biggest things you can win as a player alongside the World Championships, All England and Olympics. This time we had a team that could challenge the best on a good day. Satwik and Chirag were very good. Every one of our singles players was good and on a good day we could challenge with our second doubles. Everyone knew that. Everyone knew that we had a chance,” he says.
Boe’s task was to ensure the team had every possible advantage to make the most of that chance. “Everyone had a role to play. Our role as coaches mostly came in the time between matches. We had to do video analysis, decide which set of players would have the best chance against an opponent. Recall for our guys the feeling of what it’s like playing against a possible opponent."
Boe might have done his job a little too well. “After the semifinal against Denmark I was being called a Judas (betrayer),” he grins. “But I was just doing what I could to help my team win,” he says.
This professionalism extends to Boe’s behavior on the coach's chair. Part of Boe’s tactics with the side was to ensure the players never got an inkling of how nervous he was. In the doubles against Indonesia, he put on the most impressive of poker faces. “Before the match, I would make dumb jokes so they would laugh and not be so nervous. But I was burning up from the inside... Pulse would have been about 160. But I always felt as a player that if you look at your coach and see that he can’t sit still and can’t stay calm, then you panic a little. So, while I was about to explode, I was trying to stay calm. Telling them in simple words what was the plan was. Calling out plays where I could; like how they could serve or receive. These are the small things you can do without confusing them too much,” he says.
Boe kept his calm even when Satwik and Chirag bounced around like energizer bunnies after their win. That’s because he had another match with MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila to potentially prepare for. “I was with them in the practice hall. I only came out when I saw (Kidambi) Srikanth had a match point. And when he won it, all of us rushed to the court,” he says.
Does he regret not being able to watch another of his doubles pair step on the court in the final? “I was very relieved we didn’t have to play any more matches. Mentally it’s very hard to sit on court and be involved. I’m glad I didn’t have to go through it.”
In the aftermath of the victory, Boe has just been soaking in the exhilaration of the moment. “The players got a call from the Prime Minister, which would have been huge for them. Seeing all the cricketers and film actors celebrate was amazing. Watching Indian badminton trend on Indian Twitter was unbelievable. It’s touched me a little bit too even though I’m not completely an Indian,” he says.
Even as the country celebrated the win, an outpouring of delight washed over the Impact Arena in Bangkok. “It was completely chaotic. We shot pictures that took an hour. Then I went to the press room which took another hour. When I came out the players were still taking pictures. That’s one thing I never get used to. It’s the most picture-crazy country. There’s always another selfie and another configuration, this guy standing here and that guy standing there. I thought my face would fall out."
Boe hopes the Indian passion for badminton stays undiminished. He also hopes the players are even more motivated. “We have a bunch of tournaments including the Commonwealth Games this year. That’s the next big goal. I hope we will see some more badminton medals for India.”
Boe himself is committed to the badminton project. Perhaps, that’s for the best. While his trajectory as coach has skyrocketed, his planned second career has hit a bit of a speed bump, with his stock portfolio shrinking in recent days due a financial crash in the US. But, at least for now, as he celebrates the highest of highs, Boe isn’t complaining. “I’m poor, but I’m happy,” he says.