PUNCH Gunalan's vision

The IBF's Deputy President wants to make badminton the best racquet sport in the world. In a chat with S. R. Suryanarayan, he talks of his plans for the sport.

best racquet sport

PUNCH GUNALAN with former All-England champion Pullela Gopi Chand (left) when he visited Hyderabad as the Secretary- General of the Asian Badminton Confederation in 2005. His aim is to take badminton to a new height.-

He was a top player of his time. Now, as Deputy President of the International Badminton Federation, Datuk Punch Gunalan has a vision — to make badminton the best racquet sport in the world.

Gunalan is often referred to as the man who ushered in the revolutionary rally-point system in the sport. Initially the players expressed reservations about the system, but soon turned around to applaud it.

"The game has undergone a sea change after the new rule came into force. It has become more attacking now, and at times even gives the lower-ranked players a chance to run their fancied opponents close," said Gunalan of the rally-point system that came into force at the Thomas and Uber Cup qualifiers in February.

THE MATCHES BECAME crisper and very competitive after the rally-point system was introduced. And more often than not it was the day's form, more than the class of the player, that proved decisive. "I mean it sometimes gets boring when you have just one country ruling the sport. There has to be a change. You will realise after the rally-point system came in we had, for the first time, an European side in the final of the Thomas Cup (Denmark) and Uber Cup (the Netherlands)," said Gunalan, who appeared to be very pleased with the changing power equations in the game, even if China came out on top in both tournaments.

Gunalan, who was at the South Asian Games in Colombo as a special guest, was pleased that Sri Lanka managed to win a game or two against the eventual winner India in badminton. "This adds spice to the competition. That is how it becomes interesting. I am sure in the seasons to come, teams from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal will make further strides," he said.

At the IBF research is a continuous process, according to Gunalan. "We are now looking at the possibility of replacing the common shuttle used. As you know badminton is the only sport that depends on a live animal, I mean birds' feathers for the shuttles. Our researchers have assured us that they would soon be able to find a near exact replacement for birds' feathers," he revealed. "We have already begun using plastic shuttles in junior tournaments," he added.

The Deputy President also spoke of the IBF's plans to take the game to a new level, like the launch of a professional world league by 2009. "We'll probably have 12 to 16 teams divided into two groups. They will play home and away matches and we're planning to finish the entire league in about three months. All the matches will be telecast live," he said.

"Yes, television is what we are looking at to popularise the game. And since we hold the TV rights, there is a lot of revenue to be had," Gunalan added.

The idea was to ensure that each team, comprising four players, had two local players preferably in the top-200 rankings. Outstation players can be recruited like they do in the NBA and football leagues, he explained. "It is here that IBF's international training centres in Saarbrucken (Germany), Sofia (Bulgaria) and Guangzhou (China) come in handy. Players who come out of these specialised centres could be the ones who would be in demand."

"All this will, I believe, go a long way in achieving the IBF's objective of popularising the sport, while players will also get good exposure," he added.

Gunalan is very happy that badminton is beginning to gain in popularity in the Latin American countries and Africa. "We will hear more from the countries here. We need to have more and more people playing the sport to take it to a different plane," he said.

"At the moment, with over 150 million people playing the sport, there are less than 1000 ranked players in the world," he lamented.

But Gunalan is optimistic. He plans to do anything, even things like getting the clubs to involve a lot more in the sport or changing the colour of the shuttle to make badminton attractive, popular and a TV-friendly sport.