‘It does help to have an icon to emulate’

Aparna Popat…“I think our young stars are ready to take on the world!”Saina Nehwal…showing the way for a young generation of Indian players.-

“The ‘Saina Effect’ has been huge on not only P. V. Sindhu but also players in the men’s and doubles sections. It is almost like now the players know what it takes to get to that level... to win,” says Aparna Popat. By Nandakumar Marar.

Aparna Popat, who entered the girls’ singles final of the Junior World Championships (Silkenborg, Denmark) in 1996, had set the benchmark in Indian women’s badminton long before Saina Nehwal entered the scene. She had a career-best ranking of World No. 16 and equalled Prakash Padukone’s feat of winning nine back-to-back senior National singles titles.

Aparna defeated a junior player, Saina, in the final of the 2006 National Championships in Bangalore before a wrist injury forced her into early retirement while she was still India No. 1. Now back in the sport as coach/advisor of Mumbai Masters, a franchise in the Indian Badminton League, Aparna speaks of the effect Saina’s breakthrough performances and her international presence have had on other Indians. The Olympian (2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens) also shares her thoughts on the IBL.

Question: Saina Nehwal’s courage against the Chinese is rubbing off on the younger players. P. V. Sindhu has displayed confidence in international events. Does it happen this way always — one big name showing the way for others?

Answer: First of all due credit must be given to Saina. She has been bold to believe in herself, and the results are there for all to see. The ‘Saina Effect’ has been huge on not only Sindhu but also players in the men’s and doubles sections. It is almost like now the players know what it takes to get to that level... to win.

It does help to have someone to emulate. In fact, to a certain extent, I feel I missed out on that in my time. The silver medal I won at the World Junior Championships (1996) seemed like a bolt from the blue. No Indian had achieved that feat before. Years later, Gopi Chand won the All-England Championship (2001) and we did see Indians perform a bit better at that stage.

How many years would it take for emerging players such as Sindhu to become ready to take on the world?

I think our young stars are ready to take on the world! Sindhu, K. Srikanth, Nandagopal, K. Maneesha have already excelled on the international stage. Having an opportunity to play top players in events like the IBL will only help them mature as players and be more consistent in their performances. Then they can go forth and stamp their authority on the world map.

In sport, it is said that icons are necessary for the youth to dream big. Indian badminton had All-England champions…

There are two aspects to having an outstanding player in your era. The first is, such a player can make you dream big, inspire you. The second is, through them, you can know the course you need to chart out to reach that level.

Sparring and training with such players makes you smarter and work that much harder. It helps you push yourself to the limit. Having an icon is a distinct advantage. Saina benefited from training under Gopi and now in turn wards at Gopi’s academy learn from Saina.

You were ranked World No. 16. What route did you take to reach there?

The number of tournaments you play internationally is not as meaningful as the number of matches you play in each tournament. The IBL is therefore a great chance, as our players will get to play other top players at least five times in a fortnight.

In my time, we only got the opportunity to play a maximum of eight to nine international tournaments each year. Since these were the biggest events, we didn’t have much chance to climb up in the rankings.

I think 1998-99 was a good period for me. I won the French Open, reached the Swedish Open semis, won the Commonwealth Games silver. Within the finite opportunities that we had, I feel a world ranking of 16 was pretty decent.

The IBL is helping you renew acquaintance with badminton in a competitive set-up. How do you see the road ahead as coach/advisor of Mumbai Masters?

I think the IBL is a great opportunity for our youngsters to learn alongside champions. After retirement in 2006, I kept in touch with the game through writing, commentary, few coaching assignments and handling sports portfolio for my employers, Indian Oil Corporation. I am super excited to give back to the game as coach/advisor of Mumbai Masters. I feel a renewed sense of energy. I love the game and being a Mumbaikar myself, I feel this is a great fit for me.

Lee Chong Wei and Tine Baun are the big names in Mumbai Masters. Watching them prepare for matches, what can Indian juniors in the squad learn?

Why only a junior? I think everyone, including me, has an opportunity to learn. Lee and Tine are great champions of our era and the experience they bring to the table is unparalleled. The way they think, their on and off court conduct, their confidence and focus… I could go on and on about the positives of having them in our team.

The event will see an assembly of big names in each franchise. Getting to know each other and finding a way to work as a team may be a challenge initially?

With anything new, there will be start-up challenges. We also know that these are world-class players and professionals to the core. I am confident that working together as a team they will definitely give fans a great experience.

In many ways, the IBL is fashioned on the lines of the IPL — the players auctions, corporate-owned teams, television coverage etc. Will this package pull in crowds later on?

The concept is unique to badminton and with so many Indian players excelling at the international level, I hope they get the attention they deserve. With many World top-10 players participating, I hope it becomes big.

Cricket as a sport has no doubt evolved over the years. Smart marketing and a cricket crazy nation is an effective combination. I feel IBL can learn and aspire to earn the popularity and success of the IPL.

In six years, the IPL has helped Indian cricketers win respect internationally for their ability to perform under intense pressure, representing different teams and franchises. Can we expect something similar from in the IBL?

The IBL format can surely do that. I believe we will see some heroic performances right through the event.