‘Indian badminton has come a long way’

Commendable show...Saina Nehwal, coach Gopi Chand and Parupalli Kashyap.-PTI

“Now that we have one Olympic badminton champion in our midst, we should recognise what it takes to produce champions,” says Aparna Popat in this interview with G. Viswanath.

I n a freewheeling interview, Aparna Popat, applauds the performances of Saina Nehwal, Parupalli Kashyap, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponaappa at the London Olympics 2012. The nine-time national women’s singles winner, two-time Olympian (Athens and Sydney) and Arjuna awardee feels Saina is capable of winning another Olympic medal in Rio in 2016.

Excerpts:

Question: Obviously London 2012 has brought cheer to Indian badminton — Saina won the bronze medal, Kashyap won three matches and Jwala and Ashwini narrowly missed the knock-out…

Answer: London has been very good as far as Indian badminton is concerned. Prakash Nath was a finalist at the All-England in 1949, Prakash Padukone won the All-England in 1980 and Gopi Chand in 2001 and the Jwala-Ashwini combination won the World championship bronze in 2011. And now the Olympic medal and other spirited performances in London. Saina did well to continue the legacy. Kashyap put up a very spirited performance. And Jwala-Ashwini played some excellent badminton. All in all, Indian badminton has come a long way and today I am extremely proud to be a part of the Indian badminton fraternity.

Did Saina raise her own expectations following her showing in Beijing 2008, the wins against the Chinese and also her consistent performances in the international circuit in the lead-up to the Olympics?

She certainly did. But all for the right reasons. You know everyone is talking about her being ‘lucky’ in the bronze medal play-off. By that parameter, we should admit that she was a bit ‘unlucky’ to lose her quarter-final match in Beijing. She has been playing consistently well since then. Maintaining a Top-5 ranking for three years is commendable. Then there were the twin victories right before the Olympics. I think she was justified in dreaming of the gold.

Clearly, four years from Beijing meant that she was a far superior player and entered the London Games with an enhanced knowledge of the opposition, most importantly the Chinese? In addition Gopi Chand’s presence also contributed a lot?

Four years is a long time — especially at that age. She was 18 years old in Beijing with three titles under her belt and in London she was 22 with 12 titles. Apart from gaining experience and maturity, she also improved her fitness and had more time to plan and prepare for these Games. And when you play the Chinese, preparation is vital. Gopi Chand’s presence is of utmost importance. He has been training Saina for many years now. He is her mentor. He not only understands her and what she requires, but he is also cued into different badminton situations as he himself has played at the highest level.

It’s been a natural progression for her from the time she won the World Junior Championship in 2008, the Commonwealth Games title in 2010 and the bronze in the Asian championships?

The progression has been steady. The transition from juniors to seniors is tricky. But she managed that thanks to proper planning and training. Saina is fortunate to have a coach like Gopi Chand and a good team working with her.

Saina is 22 and has hinted at playing in a few more Olympic Games? Obviously, she is willing to be patient and surpass herself at future Olympics?

Yes. She aimed for gold in London, but came up short. So I am not surprised that she has set a goal to surpass the bronze medal performance. Saina has the burning desire to be the best. If she retains her fitness and motivation and remains injury-free, she could have a go at another medal in 2016.

What has distinguished Saina from her predecessors like you (Aparna Popat), Madhumita Bisht, Manjusha Kanwar (Pawangadkar), P.V.V. Lakshmi and Deepti Thanekar? There was so much talent?

India has no dearth of talent. What was lacking previously was proper preparation. This does not mean that the players then did not work hard. Just that the approach to training was unscientific. What was required was sustained, guided foreign exposure, not foreign trips. To make a top class player, support is required from all quarters; the government, federation, coach and his team of experts etc. And above all, they should work in unison with a common vision of making champions. As years have gone by, the facilities and systems for badminton have been steadily improving. But the breakthrough, I feel, came around 2006 and hence we are seeing the fantastic results today. As far as Saina is concerned, I think due to all the guidance and support, she is confident and better prepared to take on the best in the world. And of course, her work ethic has been exemplary.

After Saina (national win in 2007), Sayali Gokhale, Trupti Murgunde and Aditi Mutatkar have shown they are gifted, but have not been able to come close to Saina?

According to me, to be a winner, you have to either do more, or better or something different from the rest. When compared to the others, Saina leads on each of these three counts.

Mark Spitz attributed his success to a strong competitor in Doug Russell and Michael Phelps has said training with a group of swimmers like Erik Vendt, Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay and Klete Keller pushed and motivated him. Perhaps this is a major lacunae in Indian individual sports... one great player and the rest mediocre?

It is certainly a big advantage to have strong domestic competition and strong training partners. However, only a few countries have this luxury. Saina has proved to us that this is not the only route to motivation and success. However, to produce several champions regularly, domestic competition is the key.

Kashyap too excelled... how tough is the men’s circuit in comparison with the women’s?

The men and women’s circuits are as different as it is in any other sport. The men are faster and more powerful, whereas the women’s game, in spite of the recent increase in power and speed, involves more skill and court placements. Also, now with the new scoring pattern of 21 points, men and women play the same amount of points and games.

Kashyap played excellently at the Olympics. The Asians are much faster and more powerful, but Kashyap’s fitness is laudable. Also what stood out for me was the fact that though he did not have much time to prepare for the Games as he qualified really late, he played great. Amongst the four badminton disciplines in which India qualified, the least hype was around the men’s singles. It was heartening to see Kashyap play with so much focus and self-belief.

Jwala and Ashwini… they won two rounds, but lost the opening match… maybe they were a bit unlucky?

I think Jwala and Ashwini were outstanding. Yes, they lost the first match. But they were up against the No. 4 seeds there. Not only was that their first match of the tournament, but also the toughest one in their group. Yes, I think it was a bit unlucky that they did not make it to the quarters after the disqualification of the four pairs, but all in all, I think they have a lot of positives to take away from the Games.

Your thoughts on the matches being given away by the Chinese, South Korean and Indonesian pairs and the subsequent decision to throw them out of the Games ?

Looking at it from the view of the spectators and the sport in general, the way the matches were played was unethical and was bad advertisement for badminton. From the players’ point of view, it could have been a part of strategy as we have to admit that all the players were at the Games to win a medal and if they had a chance to play weaker opponents, they would exploit that.

Corrective action was required on the part of the officials, but I would have expected the decision (being banned from the games) to be carried over to another tournament. The Olympics comes once in four years and every player dreams of winning a medal here. For that they have toiled their entire lives. To take such a radical decision at this event with no prior warning was unfortunate. I really feel for those disqualified players.

Gopi Chand talked about the need for the overhauling of the system in India (after Saina’s bronze was confirmed) and the absence of a proper structure?

I agree. A proper, systemised structure is certainly required. Now that we have one Olympic champion in our midst, we should learn from this and realise and recognise what it takes to produce champions. Badminton should be spread across the country so that we have more children playing the sport and then build an efficient system to identify and nurture talent. Then the aim of getting more than one medal from badminton in 2016 will be a distinct possibility.