A couple of weeks ago, just before he was to fly to Spain to compete at the BWF Junior World Championships, Sankar Muthusamy stood outside the New Delhi airport, having been told he was no longer part of the Indian team travelling to Santander.
The decision not to send the 18-year-old was made after the Badminton Association of India looked into an alleged act of indiscipline. Sankar had left the national camp in Hyderabad to compete in a tournament in Bangalore.
After an apology, Sankar was eventually allowed to compete in the individual boys’ singles event, but was not picked to take part in the team competition – in which India failed to even make the quarterfinals . After more than a few worried nights wondering if he was going to be allowed to compete, Sankar is making waves. This time for the right reasons. On Saturday, Sankar advanced to the final of the boys’ singles category, beating Thailand’s Panitchaphon Teeraratsakul 21-13, 21-15.
In doing so, Sankar became only the fourth Indian — alongside Aparna Popat, Saina Nehwal and Siril Verma — to book a place in the final of the badminton junior world championships.
Regardless of the result of the final on Sunday, Sankar has already done better than world medallists Lakshya Sen and B Sai Praneeth, both of whom had won bronze at the junior worlds.
While the medal will justify Sankar’s right to be at the junior worlds, the win is significant for another reason. Prior to Sankar, all but one (Aparna Popat) of India’s previous medallists at the junior world championships, had been produced by only two academies — the Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad and the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore. Sankar is from the small Fireball Academy in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, a state not known as a badminton powerhouse.
“This win is very important because almost all the previous medallists came from bigger academies. Sankar is from a small academy, from a state which doesn’t really have a tradition of badminton. People might think this is a flash in the pan, but it is a very significant moment. It will give a lot of people the confidence that a top-quality badminton player can come from any part of the country,” says Aravindan Samiappan, the player’s coach.
Incidentally, the sport of badminton wasn’t Sankar’s first choice. His father, Muthusamy, is a former tennis player and wanted his son to take it up. However, a spell of rain changed his mind. “One day I wanted to take Sankar to tennis, but it was raining. So, I thought of introducing him to an indoor sport,” he says.
That’s when, as a six-year-old, Sankar first went to the Fireball Academy at Mogappair in north-west Chennai. Aravindan, a former state-level player, had started the academy as a recreational center.
Talking of the early days, Muthusamy says, “At that time, there was no concept of badminton outside private clubs in Chennai. There was no real culture of badminton in the city. Even our academy wasn’t a high-level center. It was just a place where anyone could play,” he says. “Initially, because there were just a couple of courts, and many players, Sankar would only get a couple of touches with the shuttle.”
There was no real expectation that Sankar would go beyond being more than a casual player. It was only after he started winning district-level tournaments in the under-10 age group that both his father and coach started thinking of taking the sport up seriously.
Aravindan says, “When Sankar started winning tournaments, we thought we could try to become a professional center.”
That was particularly challenging since unlike the Gopichand Academy or the Prakash Padukone Academy, there was no tradition to build on. “It’s easy to train beginners. You don’t need to have a lot of infrastructure or high-level coaching in place for that. You can also make a good amount of money doing that. But it’s really hard if your goal is to train an elite player, especially in Tamil Nadu, where we were doing everything from scratch,” says Aravindan.
The first major challenge was to develop a strong sparring pool for Sankar to practise against. “The lack of good sparring partners is where smaller academies crumble compared to the established names, which have a lot of high-quality players. It’s not a question of coaches. I’ve slowly been able to build a pool of good partners,” says Aravindan.
But then came an even bigger stumbling block. “The major issue we face is a lack of funds. The majority of funds towards badminton in India goes to the two big academies. We aren’t complaining because we can’t ask for money unless we produce results. It’s easier to ask for funds after we develop players, but it’s hard to develop players without funds,” he says.
The costs are steep. “With Sankar, we need a box of shuttles every day. His monthly expenses just in terms of training come to Rs 1 lakh,” says Aravindan. Then there are the costs towards competing internationally to gain experience and build up ranking points. “It’s not enough to play one or two tournaments. The challenge once you reach the senior level is to play a circuit of tournaments. You have to play between 10 and 15 tournaments a year. You are looking at a cost of between Rs 40 lakh and Rs 50 lakh a year,” says Aravindan.
Sankar’s family isn’t particularly wealthy. His father worked in the Chennai Port Authority as an engineer, but took voluntary retirement to travel with his son for tournaments.
Muthusamy has never let finances come in the way of his son’s career. “We had gone through most of our savings by 2019 itself in travelling. So, in 2019, when he was looking to compete in Europe, it became hard to get a visa because you need to show that you have a certain amount of money in your bank account. There was no option but to sell our house,” says Muthusamy, matter-of-factly. The family now stays in a rented apartment.
As Sankar started finding more success — he has won U-13, U-15 and U-18 nationals in India and even held the junior world number 1 ranking for a bit — he found sponsors. “He’s currently funded by the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, Go Sports, and the Murugappa Group in Chennai. It’s a big help, but we still have to spend about Rs 20 lakh every year from our pocket. We have to be careful about every rupee we spend,” says Muthusamy.
This lack of funds had a role to play in Sankar leaving the national camp to play in Bangalore. “We had already given the entry for the tournament and had already gone past the date by which we could withdraw without paying a penalty. It was to avoid paying that penalty that we had to go to Bangalore. But it was a decision that almost cost us a chance to take part at the world championships. We should have been more careful,” says Muthusamy.
While Sankar has been dealing with the challenges of trying to make a mark without the backing of a big academy, there’s never been any serious thought about shifting base. “We considered it once, but I realised that even if we went to a bigger academy, it wouldn’t be Gopichand sir or Vimal sir who would be directly training him. If Gopichand sir was himself training, then it might be different. But it would be an assistant coach who would be responsible for him. There are challenges we face in Chennai, but the advantage is that we are getting personal attention from Aravindan coach,” says Muthusamy.
According to his Sankar’s coaches, being from a smaller academy does not restrict his ambition. “He might not be practising with the best player, but is always inspired by them. His favourite player is (China’s two-time Olympic champion) Lin Dan. Sankar is left-handed like him and watches Lin Dan’s matches at the Olympics and world championships all the time. That’s who his role model is,” says Muthusamy.
For now, Sankar has a long way to go to match his icon’s career. Sankar is clear what he wants to do. “Our immediate goal after the world championships is to compete in more senior competitions at the World Tour 500 level. That way we can start testing ourselves against tougher opponents. The more we do that the better we will get and the more opportunities we will get,” says Sankar.