My All England win in 1980 was a turning point for Indian badminton. When we talk of Indian history, we talk of pre and post-independence periods. Similarly, we could probably divide Indian badminton into the pre-1980 and post-1980 eras.
But immediately after I won in London, I did not realise the importance of it. I thought it was just another victory. I thought a few close relatives, a few friends and family would be happy.
When I had won the Commonwealth Games gold (in 1978) some 20-30 people had come to the airport to receive me. I thought it would be something similar this time, maybe 10-15 people more. But I was not aware that it had become front-page news back home. That had never happened in the past for a sport like badminton.
I was given a State welcome in Bangalore. In those days, such a reception was reserved only for important State guests. It was a pleasant surprise. People had lined up right from the old airport all the way till the Vidhana Soudha. The Chief Minister (Gundu Rao) himself was waiting to receive me. I was brought in an open jeep. Even now, people who are in their 60s or 70s say, ‘We were watching on the road and waving at you when you went.’ It’s all very nostalgic.
On the morning of the final, I was my normal self, no pressure, no stress. I was not sure whether I would win or not. I had just won the Danish Open and the Swedish Open. Liem Swie King had not played those two. He wanted to be fresh so he came directly to the All England. I had played him a few times before and never beaten him. In fact I had lost easily. So he was definitely the hot favourite.
I was not expecting anything. The only thing I decided was that I would not make it easy for him. When I first went on the court and knocked a little, I was feeling good. I was in good shape. I knew I’d be able to give him a good fight. I was not sure of what the final outcome would be.
Unfortunately, nobody from India has won the All England since Gopi Chand (in 2001), but we’ve had so many other good victories. We’re there. We’ve beaten all the top players. It’s just a matter of time. I would advise the players not to take additional pressure. Just go out and play. Going forward, I don’t think we’ll have to wait this long for another All England title because things have changed. Between 1980 and 2001, the federation didn’t really make use of the opportunity. It was a missed opportunity. But now the game has grown. The kind of coverage, the kind of infrastructure that exists now is such that even if someone wants to stop the growth, it won’t be possible. Indian badminton is growing on its own. There’s so much talent now. Whatever is required for the growth and development of the game, it is there: government support, corporate support, media coverage, visibility etc.
Does the All England mean as much to today’s players as it did to those of my era? That you have to ask the players themselves. I’m sure it definitely will not mean the same it meant in the 1980s. Because then badminton was not in the Olympics, and the Worlds were once in three years. There was no Super Series as such. Only a few important events were there, like the Danish, Malaysian and Indonesian Opens. In some way when you have more tournaments, the importance of certain events does get diluted. If you lose in one tournament, then next week there is one more, the week after there’s another. Which was not the case 20-30 years back.
Each loss really hurt the players of our time. I don’t think that happens now because there are so many more opportunities. With the Worlds held every year and badminton being in the Olympics, All England may not hold the same value. But it’s definitely an important tournament.
I feel if I were playing today, I would have adapted my style of play to today’s needs. The tendency for people is to think, ‘Would he have survived now?’ Generally, my view is that champions, in any sport in any era, succeeded because they found out what was good at that time. It doesn’t mean that if I or anybody were to play now, we’d play exactly the same way we played in the 1980s or the 1970s.
We would have adapted to what was required and found a way to win. It’s not just me. It applies to any sport. I would still have made use of my strengths. I would probably have been much stronger physically. I would maybe have had a more powerful smash, moved faster, but at the same time used all my skills, my deception. I don’t know how it would have evolved. But I would have found a way. If you could do it at that time, you can do it anytime.
As told to Shreedutta Chidananda
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