Age no barrier for Arvind Bhat

Arvind Bhat with his wife Pallavi Bhat (2nd right) son Partha, father Prabhakar (left) and mother Saraswathi during the felicitation function organised by the Karnataka Badmintion Association in Bangalore.-C.P. SAMPATH KUMAR Arvind Bhat with his wife Pallavi Bhat (2nd right) son Partha, father Prabhakar (left) and mother Saraswathi during the felicitation function organised by the Karnataka Badmintion Association in Bangalore.

“Even if I do well in two or three more tournaments like this, I’ll be happy. I’m looking at it session by session, not even match by match. Considering my age, it is important to enjoy myself and have a nice time. Let us see where it gets me,” says Arvind Bhat who won the German Open Grand Prix. By Ashwin Achal.

If you had placed a bet on Arvind Bhat winning the German Open Grand Prix, it could have brought you a small fortune. An injury-ridden career in its twilight, no coach, no support staff, no financial backing, and a draw which required him to defeat significantly higher-ranked opponents in nearly every round — it would have taken a brave man to bet against these odds.

“I did not expect to win this tournament. In fact, I thought I would lose in the first round itself,” said Bhat during the felicitation function organised by the Karnataka Badminton Association.

The 34-year-old, who became the first Indian to win the prestigious tournament, had good reason to keep expectations at a minimum. He had recovered from a back injury just a month before the start of the event, which meant that his run-up to Germany was less than ideal.

Bhat had lost to Siril Varma (an opponent nearly half his age) in the quarterfinal of the All-India Canara Bank Senior Ranking Tournament in Bangalore a week before, and it seemed like the writing was on the wall.

Despite the setback, the Bangalorean won his first round match at Mulheim an der Ruhr, only to come up against Hong Kong’s world number 10, Hu Yun, in the second round. Bhat knew this would pose the ultimate challenge. “The match against Hu Yun was the toughest. I was quite worried about my fitness, so I was not sure if my body would be able to cope with the demands of such a strenuous match. I knew I would be really tested.”

The Bangalorean aced this ‘test', coming through with a 21-17, 16-21, 21-11 win. This upset proved to be the turning point of his campaign, as it allayed all fears he had about his fitness. “It felt good because my body held up.”

Bhat’s fairytale run then extended to a straight-game victory over 14th-seed Viktor Axelsen in the quarterfinal, and a close 21-12, 12-21, 22-20 defeat of world number 24 Tien Chen Chou of Chinese Taipei in the last-four. In the final, the 87th-ranked Indian shut out Denmark’s Hans-Kristian Vittinghus (world No. 25) to clinch his first international title in seven years.

A major championship win, even when cushioned with the best circumstances, must be applauded. Bhat’s ascent, however, was anything but smooth. In 2011, at the age of 31, he was told by the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (where he trained) that he no longer figured in their plans, as the funds were being diverted to groom younger players. Bhat says he understands the reasons for this change, though he “did not like it” at the time.

Forced out, he no longer had a coach, or access to support staff. The former national champion began to train at the KBA without much fuss. The KBA — this served as just a practice venue, and did not offer the full support services of an academy — was more than willing, with Bhat representing the state in national championships. The experienced shuttler began to train with less-accomplished players at the KBA.

“Initially, when the academy said it wanted to concentrate on juniors, we did not like it. But later, we realised that they made the correct decision,” he said.

His most pressing concern was the fact that he did not have a coach, so he decided to speak to badminton legend P. Gopi Chand, who has produced some of India’s best players from the stables of his Gopi Chand Badminton Academy. The phone call helped put his career back on track. “I gave Gopi Chand a call, and he agreed to help me out whenever I needed some work on my game. Whenever I get a chance, I speak to him.

“Gopi was then 37 — I was 31 — and he told me he could still hold his own against all the juniors. What he said motivated me a great deal.” Bhat is all praise for his sparring partners at the KBA as well. “They have been of unbelievable help to me. I guess I have helped them out too.”

His training routine was set, but in order to compete in national and international tournaments, he required sponsors. With the PPBA out of the mix, Bhat began to approach his friends and corporates for help. Luckily, he did receive some aid, which allowed him to get back on the court.

These tough experiences can make a man bitter, but Bhat is quite at peace with what he has been through. Asked if his recent victory proves that senior players like him deserve to be treated better, he replies: “In a way, yes, but not in a revengeful or negative way. It does prove that badminton can be played at any age. However, it is still a very demanding sport. Beyond the age of 36, it is very hard to do well.”

The story of this engineer from University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering (UVCE) reads like a stirring comeback script, but the man himself dismisses all suggestions that this is the start of something special. “Frankly, I am not looking at any target. I just want to do the good hard work, knowing that every tournament could be my last. Even if I do well in two or three more tournaments like this, I’ll be happy. I’m looking at it session by session, not even match by match. Considering my age, it is important to enjoy myself and have a nice time. Let us see where it gets me.”