One of a kind

RAKESH RAO

WITH the retirement of Madhumita Bisht, a long and illustrious chapter in the history of Indian badminton has come to a close. In a career spanning nearly three decades, Madhumita grew from a small-town girl to a big-hearted champion. By stringing together will, courage and determination to succeed, Madhumita set an example for all those who followed.

Madhumita Bisht announcing her retirement in New Delhi. The queen of Indian badminton is an eight-time National singles champion, nine-time doubles winner and a 12-time mixed doubles winner.-V. V. KRISHNAN

"If you believe you can do it, you will do it. After all, we human beings are blessed with amazing abilities. It is for us to make the most of these abilities." These words from the 38-year-old Madhumita reflect the tremendous self-belief she developed over the years.

No wonder, Madhumita, who became the National sub-junior champion in 1977, went on to collect National titles at will. An eight-time National singles champion, nine-time doubles winner and a 12-time mixed doubles winner! That, in short, tells the tale of Madhumita's all-round success at home.

Madhumita broke Meena Shah's record of six successive National singles titles by winning seven between 1985 and 1991. She also had the unique distinction of emerging winner in all her eight appearances in the singles final of the National championship.

A fitness fanatic, fiercely competitive and a firm disciplinarian, Madhumita was greatly inspired by Ami Ghia, who won the Nationals seven times. She acknowledges the contribution made by Ami and says, "till date, we are best friends."

Even before Madhumita arrived on the National scene, Ami was already a four-time National singles champion. "I remember watching her play for the first time. I thought she was just too good," recalls Madhumita, now a Sports Officer with Northern Railway.

It was at Panjim in 1978 that Madhumita first saw Ami play and went on to lose to her. "I used to be very scared of the senior players like Ami and Kanwal Thakur Singh. Then I joined Railways and Ami was with me. I remember, we had a camp in Delhi's Karnail Singh Stadium. We were roommates. Dipu Ghosh was our coach and he was of the opinion that I stood to gain a lot from Ami. He was right."

Madhumita recalled a tournament in Bangalore, before joining the Railways, in 1978. "I was to play Ami in the final. But when I watched her warm-up, I forgot all about the fact that even I had to warm-up. Believe me, I did not warm up at all. Needless to say, I lost. But after watching her before the match, I realised the importance of warming up before every match. Perhaps, her meticulous ways rubbed off on me."

It was not until 1980 that Madhumita began to believe that she could actually beat Ami. "I had beaten Kanwal Thakur Singh (who won two National titles by beating Ami in the finals) in the Lucknow International. So my confidence was growing."

One Saturday afternoon, in the Uber Cup camp at Patiala, Madhumita lost 11-12 to Ami in the deciding game. "After the match I was wondering if I could run her so close, it was possible to beat her, too. Sunday was a day of rest. On Monday, the trials to select the team were to start. When the lots where drawn, I faced Ami in the first match of the round-robin trials. I beat her 11-7, 11-8," recalls Madhumita with a glint of pride in her eyes.

"I beat her in August 1980 and again in January 1981. But around a fortnight later, in the Vijayawada Nationals, I lost to her in the semifinals. But thereafter, things became a little more comfortable for me. I beat her six times in the National finals. I've enjoyed playing with Ami. I played with her and many more opponents since then, but I can tell you, that in my opinion, Ami was the most difficult player to beat," declares Madhumita, whose game revolved around her speed, fine anticipation, power and deception.

Hailing from Jalpaiguri and getting her early lessons in badminton from her father at Siliguri, young Madhumita worked hard to overcome the constraints. From playing on an outdoor mud-court to a make-shift indoor hall with the roof only 15 feet high, Madhumita progressed. "One could neither serve deep, nor go back since there was a danger of banging your racquet against the back-wall. But this helped my speed as I had to get adjusted to the shuttle travelling at such a quick pace," says Madhumita on those challenging days.

An appearance in the National junior final and a sub-junior title kept her on the course. "In 1978, my dad (an artist with the Information and Cultural Affairs Department) shifted to Calcutta. This helped my badminton a lot. I must tell you that my dad was my biggest support. When I was 10, he accompanied me everywhere. He forgot everything else as he helped me pursue my dreams. He would give me an oil massage, tie my shoe-laces and even hand over the racquet to me before my match. Would you believe that? He would never scold me even when I lost. He would say, 'unless you lose, you'll not know what it takes to win.' Till date, he is equally concerned," says Madhumita about her "baba," who used to personally repair the cemented floor of the badminton court at Siliguri to ensure that there was no break in his daughter's practice-session.

Employed with the South Eastern Railways at the tender age of 13 years and seven months and married at 18 to Delhi-based shuttler Vikram Singh, Madhumita benefited a great deal from the environment which encouraged her to go on.

Madhumita went on to bag a bronze in the Asian Games in 1982 and received the Arjuna award in the same year. In 1992, Madhumita became the first lady to represent the country in the Olympic Games, in Barcelona. In fact, right through the 1980s and the 1990s, Madhumita was a regular feature of the Indian teams for the World Cup and Uber Cup competitions. Again in the 1998 Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Madhumita was part of the bronze-winning team.

Looking back on Madhumita career, success in the major international championships is absent. She won a triple-crown at Toulouse and finished runner-up in the USSR International in Moscow. But to see things in perspective, it must be remembered that during her best years as a singles player, lack of international exposure was the biggest hindrance facing the Indian players. Barring Prakash Padukone, no other player in the country could break these home-grown shackles. But surely, Madhumita deserved more in the international arena.

Among her big victories, the one against World number two Kusuma Sarwanta in 1992 stands out. Kusuma had won the Malaysian Open and the following week, Madhumita beat her in the second round in Indonesia.

Madhumita wanted to take a break from the game soon after the Nationals in 1991. "But Vikram and my in-laws asked me to concentrate on making it to the Olympic Games the following year. They said, 'since you are playing well, you should give it a shot,'" recalls Madhumita.

Madhumita was ranked 29th in the world in 1992. For three months she looked for a sponsor to play abroad but in vain. Non-participation brought down her ranking to the 60s. "Since only the top-40 get a direct seeding in the Olympic Games, I had no option but to play and do well enough to raise my ranking. I reached the quarterfinals of the Korean Open and the ABC Championships before making the pre-quarterfinals of the All-England Championships that year," says Madhumita.

On her return from Barcelona, Madhumita chose to stay off the game. She returned when her son was three months old but was firm on playing only in the country. "I was very happy to have a son after 10 years of marriage. I knew that I had played enough and my time was now for him. So I made up my mind not to travel overseas," says Madhumita.

Later, Madhumita became Sindhu Gulati's doubles partner after Nancy Keith gave up the sport following her marriage. Madhumita and Sindhu not only won their inter-Railways matches but also went on to win all three selection tournaments leading to the selection of the Indian team for the World championship in Switzerland. "Though Sindhu was aware of my priorities, all others waited for me to report for the World Cup camp at Patiala. At that time, I was away in Kolkata to attend my brother's wedding. Citing domestic reasons, I stayed away from the camp."

The turning point in Madhumita's career came when she lost the doubles match with Sindhu in the 1996 Nationals at Bharauch. "I had put on a lot of weight due to thyroid problems. But I told myself that I had to become completely fit before the next Nationals. Thereafter, I began training very hard."

A string of consistent showings, up to the Pune Nationals in 1997, saw Madhumita make the National team for the SAARC Cup at Colombo. "I was not very keen but Dipu Ghosh and Ami Ghia persuaded me to travel with the team." She made all the three finals and won the doubles in the company of P. V. V. Laxmi.

Thereafter, in a major tournament in Chennai, where Aparna Popat and Manjusha Kanwar did not play, Madhumita beat Neelima Choudhary in the semifinals and Laxmi in the final. This was also Madhumita's last singles title.

Her amazing success-rate in the doubles is something that has not received the kind of accolades it deserves. Madhumita's first doubles title came in the company of Ami in 1981. She regained the crown in 1986 with Mallika Barua and went on to retain the title for the next three years with Ami. After Ami left the scene, Madhumita partnered Sudha Padmanabhan and won twice in succession till 1991. In 1998, Madhumita was back on top with Sindhu and regained the title for the last time in 2000 alongside P. V. V. Laxmi.

In mixed doubles, Madhumita's consistency will be hard to match. She has played the National mixed doubles finals a whopping 20 times!

Madhumita first won the mixed event in 1982 in the company of Sanat Mishra. The duo came together in 1987 and recreated the magic over the next three years. For the following two years, it was with Harjeet Singh. After her comeback, beginning in 1995, Madhumita won four times in succession with Vinod Kumar. Last year, Vincent Lobo was Madhumita's partner in prosperity, just as it was Markose Bristow this year. Interestingly, the only time Madhumita partnered Vikram, the duo ended as runner-up in 1986.

"I understand that doubles competition does not get its due. But that has not discouraged me from enjoying the doubles. I hope, with changing times, we'll pay more attention to doubles. After all, in the World Team championship, you have three doubles. I'm glad the Badminton Association of India is working in this direction. Getting a specialist doubles coach like Rashid Sidek to India was a wonderful idea. We have talented doubles players and youngsters like Sanave Thomas and V. Diju are promising a lot. I am sure, it is a matter of time before we start getting results in doubles, too."

Being involved in competitive badminton for 27 years, the only time an injury threatened to put an end to her career was in 1999. A leg-injury suffered in a camp in Bangalore necessitated an operation. And for once, Madhumita thought that it was not possible for her to resume playing. But help was at hand.

"Dr. Ashok Rajagopal told me that he'll see to it that I'm back. He even told me that he cited my example to encourage others to fight their injuries and return to their respective discipline. It took eight months for me to get back. I again trained and found a place in the Uber Cup team in 2000," recalls Madhumita.

Thereafter, she began contemplating retirement. Though there was no dearth of motivation, Madhumita thought it was time for her to spend more time with her growing son, Harshvardhan, besides fulfilling other family commitments.

"After the Cochin Nationals (in 2000), I decided to announce my retirement. But people around me prompted me to play on. The same happened even after the Jaipur Nationals, last year. But this time, before the Lucknow Nationals I had made up my mind that this would be it," she says.

In fact, Madhumita all but made a formal announcement at Lucknow before changing her mind to do so on her return to Delhi. The mixed doubles title in the company of Markose Bristow was an indication of her form and this led to her selection in the Uber Cup team in Eindhoven.

And when Madhumita finally called it a day in New Delhi, it was in the presence of her employers, former Asian champion Dinesh Khanna and several badminton players.

"I am not feeling too sad since I had prepared myself mentally for this day long time back. May be, I'll be attached to badminton and do everything that I can for the youngsters. Whatever I've learnt, I will try to give to the younger players," said Madhumita who is also the chief coach for Railways.

"Whatever I am today, my job, name and fame, it is all due to badminton. There are several successful people in various professions and vocations but how many of them are well-known? So I'll remain eternally grateful to the game and all those people who believed in me."

Looking ahead, Madhumita is happy that a lot of foreign exposure is being given to today's players. "It is good but not everyone is making the most of it. Since, they are getting it far more easily, they do not value it as much. I feel, there is not much accountability. The players should be made to feel that if they are being given the opportunity to represent the country, they should give their very best. I am not saying you win every time you go out and play, but try your best. I see that they lack dedication and discipline. This is where the role of parents comes in. Certain values need to be inculcated at home."

Citing examples of her idol Prakash Padukone for his discipline and P. Gopi Chand for his commitment, Madhumita says, "I've watched Prakash work very hard. His discipline was simply amazing. Take a look at Gopi. He is so dedicated. Even after three knee operations, he is so committed on the court. If you don't have the commitment, you cannot succeed," says Madhumita. For years, Madhumita has carried on successfully mainly due her form and fitness. Her passion for the game and the appetite for success have kept her on the court. When looking at Madhumita's glorious career, it is difficult to find a parallel. She is one of a kind.