Aparna-Vimal spat overshadows the event

CHETAN ANAND'S SPIRITED performance in Thomas Cup won him a place in the Commonwealth Games team.-

India's rare qualification, only the third time, to the Thomas Cup Finals was pushed to the background following the war of words between Vimal and Aparna, writes RAKESH RAO.

Nine-time National champion Aparna Popat and National coach Vimal Kumar share two things in common. They are both strong-willed and want things to go their way. Not surprisingly, such people seldom like their mirror image.

Their spat was the most talked about subject during the Asian preliminaries of the Thomas and Uber Cup badminton competitions in Jaipur. As a result, the sheen from India's rare qualification, only the third time, to the Thomas Cup Finals was lost a bit. After nearly five years, the cold war between the two was out in the open in the days leading to the competitions in Jaipur. Worse, even during the competition, there were occasions when it was clear that there was no love lost between the two.

Things came to such pass that the re-elected President of the Badminton Association of India V. K. Verma asked Vimal Kumar, in the presence of the media persons, not to speak to the scribes. Earlier, Verma had told Aparna not to make statements in the media on the circumstances that led to her last-minute inclusion in the Uber Cup team.

Since 2001, when Aparna left the BPL-run Academy where Vimal heads the training programme, to train under Sports Authority of India coach Gangula Prasad, the rift has only widened. While Aparna complained of not getting the kind of training and attention she deserved at the Academy, Vimal spoke of equality at his academy and no single player could be chosen for special treatment no matter what his or her status was.

"If a player is not happy at the Academy, he or she is free to leave," said Vimal when asked about the players like former All England champion P. Gopi Chand and later Aparna leaving the Academy to join Gangula Prasad.

"We have made it clear to all the players that we don't make players. We only train them to get better. We have our system and those not happy with it, may leave. No hard feelings," said Vimal.

Aparna made her point by saying, "For me to improve, I cannot be given just 20 minutes of on-court practice in a session. When Gopi left the Academy, I thought he had taken a wrong decision but it proved right. I appreciate the training given by Prasad Sir. It has made me a better player. I could not have asked for more."

There were several accusations from either side. If Aparna felt that Vimal was busy concentrating on Academy girls Trupti Murgunde and B. R. Meenakshi so that they could beat her, Vimal questioned Aparna's attitude when it came to attending National camps.

When Aparna stayed away from the preparatory camp for the Uber Cup in Jalandhar citing a wrist injury that needed medical attention, Vimal Kumar, among others in the BAI, suspected that Aparna was faking an injury. After statements in the media from both Aparna and Vimal, Verma asked Aparna to join the team in Jaipur on the eve of the Uber Cup competition.

Aparna, who maintained that she had trained for just two days and was not really prepared to play in a competitive match, was impressive while leading India to an unexpected victory over Thailand in the opening tie. Not surprisingly, she went on to lose in the matches against Hong Kong and Singapore while winning against Pakistan.

She wanted to be excluded from the tie for the fifth place against Malaysia citing a strained back. Later, when India lost the match 2-3, Vimal, speaking to the media, questioned Aparna's attitude.

This irked Aparna and she wasted no time in bringing it to the notice of Verma. She wanted Vimal to withdraw his statement. However, by the evening, Verma decided to gag the players and coaches by asking them not to speak to the media on any subject. However, by that time, much damage had already been done.

On the positive side, the BAI did well to reconsider the composition of the men's team for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

Chetan Anand's spirited performance in Thomas Cup received its due and he took the place of Arvind Bhat in the originally decided five-member team. Among the women, Aparna headed the team chosen on merit.