Abinn Shyam Gupta lives up to his top billing

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

INDIAN sportspersons are always looking for foreign exposure to assess physical and mental levels in competitive situations. In such a scenario, an international tournament at home is a welcome bonus, since factors like tour expenses, food and climate adjustments cease to be causes for concern. The players can concentrate on the performance part, against opponents who have to do the worrying. Prakash Padukone's organisation of the Asian Satellite Badminton Championship in Mumbai should be seen in this context.

Indian badminton's living legend provided a platform for the nation's shuttlers to earn respect and money through the Padukone Sports Management (PSM), topping the effort with BPL's sponsorship of the $5000 prize money. Abhinn Shyam Gupta, banking on defensive skills to clinch the men's singles title, and mixed doubles champions Jaseel Ismail/Manjusha Kanwar, were the only other Indians to cash in on the opportunity created by Prakash Padukone's enterprise and goodwill.

Aparna Popat stumbled at the last hurdle, dethroned in the women's singles final by Salakjit Polsana, one of a bunch of young, hungry Thailand shuttlers hogging the limelight. Padukone, confident of future financial support for such ventures, is already pushing for revival of Indo-England Test series, last played in 1979. "The Test series between India and England would provide our players a good opportunity to get exposure. The players are almost on par and hence the contests will be even," he said, thinking aloud before the final.

Abhinn Shyam Gupta, richer by Rs. 33,600 after a calculated 15-4, 6-15, 15-4 demolition of Thailand player Jakrapan Thanathiratham, is one of the few Indians looking forward to such breakthroughs. A self-taught champion who follows a training regimen taught by his father, this top seed from Allahabad showed tremendous patience and endurance. "Having a coach to make things easier for you helps, but I prefer it this way," said Gupta, a defensive type whose retrieving seems programmed, returning every smash/drop coming over the net till weary rivals concede points due to fatigue.

Long legs take him within hitting range of every corner of the court, like the singles final against the fourth seeded Thai, horrified at having to face a returning machine and also handle the heat. Third seed Nikhil Kanetkar too may have felt the same after running into 'the wall' in the semifinals. The left-hander has the look of an all-round player after a long stint at the BPL Padukone Academy in Bangalore, but found himself defenceless against the defensive Gupta. "The seven-point format forced me to become a bit more aggressive in my approach, though I am more comfortable playing the 15-point game (now back in favour)," said the champion.

Four Indian qualifiers - Joy Anthony, Rutupurna Kulkarni, Rupesh Kumar and Sanave Thomas - made the singles main draw, among whom only Sanave survived till the quarterfinals on the strength of defensive skills honed in international doubles play. Unseeded Thomas Kurian upset seventh seed Krishnan Yogendran in the second round before bowing out. The Malaysian gave up in the second game, unable to bear the heat and humidity, a decisive factor in most singles matches.

India's Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Aparna Popat too admitted to feeling drained, so the condition of other Asian and European youngsters, used to competing in air-conditioned courts, can well be imagined.

Aparna, now coached by Prasad Ganguly in Bangalore after moving out of Padukone's academy, had the measure of her rivals till the final against Thai livewire Salakjit Polsana, rated number two in her country. The Indian looked set for a runaway victory when winning the first game 11-7 before the 18-year-old second seed made her move, winning the title and Rs. 26,000. "Aparna usually plays a tight game and it is difficult to get points off her," said Salakjit, through an interpreter. No translation was needed to marvel at the poise and control in her deceptive strokeplay from the back, drops hit with a leaping half-smash action attracting repeated applause.

The finesse in Salakjit's play stood out, despite lack of experience compared to Aparna. With an army of such talented teenage shuttlers prowling around the world circuit, India's established shuttlers can be expected to make a mark in satellite events only with a quantum leap in singles standards. PSM's decision to accommodate India's junior National champions Bahniman Bohra, Krishna Dekaraja, Sandeep Luis/Vineet Manuel, Nishad Dravid/Dhanya Nair in the main draw, giving them a feel of international stage, is noteworthy.

"Indian youngsters taking up badminton are fortunate. Training, exposure and facilities for them have improved. Sponsors like BPL are ready with unconditional long-term support, people are interested in watching them play, as was visible in Mumbai. Now is the time for the players to make the most of it. They need to produce results, get professional," observed Padukone, happy to see academies and coaching centres coming up in other places. Assam, Hyderabad and Kerala have become new focal points for youngsters attracted to the game.

"I am looking for the day when tournaments between academies will be possible. The competition at the junior levels will only benefit Indian badminton in the long run," he said. The BPL Asian Satellite was organised by the Maharashtra Badminton Association under the auspices of the Badminton Association of India.

The results (all finals)

Men's singles: 1-Abhinn Shyam Gupta (India) bt 4-Jakrapan Thanathiratham (Thailand) 15-4, 6-15, 15-4.

Women's singles: 2-Salakjit Polsana (Tha) bt 1-Aparna Popat (Ind) 11-7, 8-11, 11-5.

Men's doubles: Jeremy Gan Wye Techk/James Gan Telk Chai (Malaysia) bt Ng Kean Kok/Tan Bin Shen (Mal)15-13, 15-5.

Women's doubles: Duang-Anong Arunkesorn/Kulchala Worawichitchaikul (Tha) bt Salakjit Polsana/Saratja Chansrisukot (Tha) 11-1, 11-5.

Mixed doubles: Jaseel Ismail/Manjusha Kanwar (Ind) bt Marcus Bristow/ B. R. Meenakshi (Ind) 11-5, 11-3.