It’s not every day that you see a sportsman shunned by the traditional sporting system make it big. Unheralded Indian shuttler Subhankar Dey has, struggling and hustling in pursuit of a dream. From running away from home in his late teens to being ignored by the top academies of the country and being overlooked for national selection, the 25-year-old has seen it all.
However, battling odds aplenty, he clinched his ticket to stardom when he achieved the improbable: a win over two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time World Champion Lin Dan at the SaarLorLux Open held in Saarbrucken, Germany. Subhankar completed the sensational win in straight games, making him only the third Indian after Kidambi Srikanth and H. S. Prannoy to achieve the feat.
“I had never imagined a moment like this when I started playing badminton. I was a huge fan of Lin growing up and had his posters stuck on the walls of my room. My sister used to send me CDs of his matches and I used to study them and try and emulate him,” an overjoyed Subhankar told Sportstar from Saarbrucken.
After the win over the Chinese star, who is slowing down but remains formidable, Subhankar breezed past England's Toby Penty and China's Ren Pengbo to storm into the final, where he defeated fifth seed Rajiv Ouseph to claim his first title of the season.
When you have someone of the stature of Lin Dan in your list of scalps, you know you have made it big. However, the journey to get here has been long and arduous for Subhankar. Hailing from Belgharia in northern Kolkata, he used to travel two hours to and fro after school to attend coaching sessions at Jadavpur’s Raipur Club. He went through this grind five times a week.
READ: Subhankar Dey: The unheralded Indian shuttler who got past Lin Dan
“I used to leave at 3 pm, play from 5 to 9 and come back around midnight. It was a huge struggle. My elder sister used to travel with me and we did this for seven years,” he said. The conditions at the club weren’t the best and he learned how to play the sport on a cement court.
His sister’s marriage and subsequent relocation to Hyderabad got him thinking and he decided to take the plunge and move to Mumbai to pursue his love for the sport.
“My parents didn’t consider badminton as a career and were keen on me taking up a government job. I was from a middle-class family and had to secure my career. However, I decided I wanted to play badminton and ran away from home. I left home with 500 rupees and took a train to Mumbai. I knew I had to go. My parents didn’t talk to me for the initial two months, but eventually came around,” he said.
Subhankar spent the next two years under coach Srikanth Vad in Mumbai’s Thane district before moving to Bangalore, where he trained under the watchful eyes of veteran coach Tom John. “Tom made me international level. He worked really hard on my game and I’m here because of him,” he said.
-Greener pastures abroad-
The Kolkata-lad was then forced to find greener pastures abroad after getting little support in India. “The odds were stacked against me. I used to receive a salary of around Rs. 20,000 from the Indian Railways (he was a senior clerk) and every academy was asking for at least 25-30,000 Rs. I approached all the academies but nobody helped me. I had no other option but to move abroad.”
Subhankar then set out on a mailing spree and tried his luck with all the major Danish badminton clubs. After a nervous few weeks, he got an offer from Ikast Badminton Club in 2015. “It was a sports college and I had to play for the club. They gave me a small salary and with that I was able to play international tournaments,” he said.
The Indian had a strong season and was soon signed by Greve Strands Badminton Club in Copenhagen, the centre for badminton in Denmark. He still continues to play club matches for the Danish side, but his troubles are far from over.
He had defeated Sai Praneeth at the senior badminton nationals last year and finished with the bronze medal, which he rates as one of the highlights of his career. However, the achievement wasn't enough to attract support. “From the beginning, there has been no support extended to me. I have done everything on my own. The opportunities, at this moment, are very scarce. I have been playing all alone and I wasn’t even included in the national camp. I was called up just two months ago. It’s really sad,” he said.
Subhankar also spoke of being snubbed during the Premier Badminton League (PBL) auctions held in October. “Players who didn’t even qualify for international series’ got chances, but players like me, who have beaten top players, got no chances. It’s quite strange, isn’t it?”
-'I have become bulletproof'-
When asked if he felt neglected because he didn’t come out of the famed Gopi Chand Academy in Hyderabad, he replied, “If you ask me, I will always say that the players who train at the Gopi Chand Academy get more opportunities and much more exposure than outsiders. That is very visible, everyone knows it. We have to accept this. I had tried a lot to get into the academy when I had no other option, but they were never eager to take me.”
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Subhankar feels his rocky journey so far has only made him stronger. “I am used to it. It doesn’t matter to me anymore. I have become bulletproof,” he said.
“At the end of the day, you have to struggle and be determined to prove the naysayers wrong. I’m sure there are many people who don’t like this (win over Lin Dan), who don’t like me proving them wrong. This is a slap on their face and I’m enjoying it.”
The India no. 8 continues to fund himself. He uses the money he earns from the Danish club to play tournaments in Europe and also receives funds from Pune-based Lakshya Foundation and a salary from the Indian Railways. However, none of this is enough. “I have no savings at the end of the day but I don't mind. The experience is worth it,” he said.
He trains with the Danish club during the season and at other times he’s back home in Kolkata, training at his own academy – the Subhankar Dey academy – which he set up in March this year.
Currently ranked 64 in the world, the SaarLorLux Open triumph will help him climb up the rankings. Subhankar, however, has developed a mental game to avoid obsessing about rankings. When told that he hit his career-best ranking of 43 in March this year, he replied, “Might be... might be. I haven’t checked my ranking for the past 6-8 months. I don’t want to check, it's a psychological thing. I just want to perform and not focus on ranking.”
From being shunned by the top academies in the country to fending for himself abroad, and eventually going on to defeat his childhood icon, Subhankar has done it his way and will hope to march on, winning points and proving a point.