The depth in talent augurs well

Unlike in the past, there were no clear favourites in Panaji though only Saina Nehwal looked like going through unchallenged. S. R. Suryanarayan reports.

Panaji made for a picturesque venue for the National Badminton Championship. The surging Mandovi River and the hilly landscape beyond formed an idyllic backdrop for the Sports Authority of Goa’s indoor facility. The asbestos-roofed arena also had a date with history as the National Championship had been held here 31 years ago.

“Yes, the same courts I think. There were only three then and not four as now. I can’t remember many other things,” said the man who won the men’s singles title then and thereafter went on to script a dream career that culminated in success at the All England Championship and the World Cup. Prakash Padukone was a special invitee at the Panaji championship. Humble as ever, the maestro admitted that he couldn’t quite recollect whom he had beaten 31 years ago in Panaji, except that he had won the title.

A few days later, another big name in Indian badminton, Pullela Gopi Chand, made his entry. He too had won the All England Championship — only the second Indian player after Padukone to win the honours. Gopi too remembers Panaji with fondness. “It was here that I became the junior national champion,” he recalled. It was one of the glorious moments of his illustrious career, some 17 years ago.

As the National coach, Gopi has a new perspective of Indian badminton. He is also a mentor to a few players including the National champion Saina Nehwal. He is also a friend, guide and advisor to many others who are in the top rung of Indian badminton.

Like Prakash, Gopi also believes in the motto ‘only hard work can produce results’. Unlike in his times, and certainly not in Prakash’s era, the Indian players now have more opportunities of playing in tournaments abroad. “But the need is to play in the right tournaments and make a step by step progress to be counted amongst the best in world,” said Gopi.

He is optimistic about the present crop of players but said that he would like to wait and see as there are tough tests ahead for them, such as the Thomas and Uber Cup, the ABC and of course the Commonwealth Games next year.

Prakash, on the other hand, expressed his views in a neatly worded article for the National Championship souvenir. “The ultimate goal of a player should be to reach his or her potential. Don’t be satisfied with what you have achieved. Keep pushing ahead. Do everything possible to become the best you can be, so that you have no regrets at the end of the day. Rudy Hartono, Erland Kops, Morten Frost, Liem Swie King, Yang Yang etc. won many more titles than I did in my career.

“I have no hesitation in admitting that all of them were better players, but at the same time I have no regrets because I achieved whatever I was capable of.”

The Nationals produced an assortment of moods. Some players were ambitious, some impressed, while a few others such as the top seed Anup Sridhar, Chetan Anand, Aravind Bhat and Anand Pawar in the men’s section, Saina Nehwal, Trupti Murugunde, Aditi Mutatkar and Aparna Balan on the distaff side showed they had it in them to grab the top honours.

So, unlike in the past, there were no clear favourites though it must be said of Saina that she looked the only one who could go on to win the title unchallenged. That she did not drop a game en route to her second National title was proof of her resolve. “I am happy that I won the National title again. I have been working towards this end,” she said.

Generally the competition was such that no player could take his or her success for granted. More so with the rally-point system in vogue where a player has to be on his or her toes right till the last point. It is more like one-day cricket where scoring quick runs mattered and not playing a waiting game.

Sometimes stiff challenges come from the most unexpected quarters, and that is when the potential of a player is truly tested. Top-seed and favourite Anup Sridhar realised this in the quarterfinal against the junior National champion Guru Sai Dutt of Andhra Pradesh. The youngster gave Anup, who had scalped Olympic Champion Taufik Hidayat in the World Championship last year, the jitters. Anup finally found his bearings and got past Dutt.

Similarly Anand Pawar queered the pitch when he ended the run of second-seeded P. Kashyap of PSPB. With Chetan Anand appearing to lag in comparison and Aravind Bhat still to believe that he has the court-craft to emerge winner, the toss up seemed to be between Anup and Anand Pawar. But as predictions sometime go, this too went wayward.

Chetan’s transformed approach in the quarterfinals — he began to play very aggressively — against Sachin Ratti changed the scenario. Chetan next beat Anup. His experience virtually left his lanky opponent numb. Bhat duly ended Anand Pawar’s run in the other semifinal, putting his smash to good use.

In the final against Chetan, Bhat was overcome by self-doubt. This was his fourth entry into the title-round and he needed to play to his potential, but Bhat simply spurned the path to glory, while Chetan grabbed his chances to record his third successive title-triumph.

In the women’s section, Saina ran into some resistance only in the semifinal against Aparna Balan. The Kerala girl, representing PSPB, is talented, but more than that she has a thinking mind.

All she needed to do was to show some resolve but did not. Saina’s relief after overcoming Aparna said it all. In fact, the match prepared her for the encounter against Trupti in the final.

The competition in the final stages of the tournament provided an insight into the depth of talent which can augur well for India. Players such as Ajay Jayaram, Guru Sai Dutt, P. Kashyap, Sagar Chopda, Aditi Mutatkar and Gayatri Vartak have it in them to take on the mantle from their seniors.

Earlier, Petroleum Sports Promotion Board cornered glory in the Inter-state phase, winning both the men’s and women’s titles. This wasn’t surprising considering the fact that the Petroleum industry formed the base of badminton talent in the country.

Fitness is the key


It all seems so unlike Pullela Gopi Chand. In his playing days, his vibrant displays used to be the subject of discussion. But having left his playing days behind him and taken up the job as India’s coach, Gopi makes a quiet entry at tournament venues and takes a seat where nobody can disturb him. He just prefers to watch the action, keen as he is on the development of the sport and assessment of the players.

Gopi, a former All England Champion, has seen the highs of the sport and mingled with the best of talent in the world. He is known as a players’ coach since he has been through the grind himself and knows the psyche of the players better than most others. So you cannot doubt Gopi when he says that “players like Anup Sridhar, Chetan Anand and Arvind Bhat have reached the take-off stage”.

During the National Championship in Panaji, talking to Sportstar, Gopi said: “these players have the credentials and the experience, and age is on their side. So they must perform consistently at the international level.”

Gopi was of the view that it is all right for a player to be playing in tournaments here and there, but finally he or she will be remembered only for his/her achievements. Victories in small tournaments are fine, but that will not remain in memory for long. It’s winning a major tournament like the All England Championship that makes the difference. “So choosing tournaments is very important for a player to progress in his career,” he advised.

Gopi stressed that fitness was the key to success and explained how the Chinese went about it. “At the Asian Games in Qatar, I saw the Chinese players, even on match days, working out hard, like weight training, running and skipping which left them soaking in sweat and completely drained. But that is the kind of demand put on them and the results are there for everyone to see. If our players can achieve even 70 per cent of the Chinese’s fitness levels, it would make a big difference,” Gopi said.

He welcomed the rally-point system that was introduced in badminton recently. Under the system points are given even as service changed hands.

“It speeds up the game; matches end quickly and to that extent, I believe it lessens the strain on a player. Yes, the players need to be sharp. I like this play,” he said.


Her goal is Beijing

Saina, based in Hyderabad, has gone through tough times in her fledgling career. The financial burden faced by her father in furthering Saina's career as she rose to become one of the best players in the country was enormous. But that phase is over. Bharat Petroleum, where she works, and the Mittal Champions Trust have ensured that Saina no longer needs to worry about finance as she pursues excellence in badminton.

The victory in the 2007 Philippines Open put Saina firmly in the international arena. The experience of playing in several international tournaments thereafter fortified her mind and strengthened her resolve. "I am able to get on to the court with more confidence than before," she said.

Saina firmly believes that what she essentially needs now is experience. "The world's leading players are there at the top only because of their experience in playing under various conditions. It toughens you up and helps you play with a better focus," she said.

As for her schedule ahead, Saina said: "The Uber Cup is there, then perhaps the German Open, the All-England Championship, Swiss Open, the Asian Championship and the Indian Open in Hyderabad in April. Hopefully I should be free in May, when I plan to write my 12th standard examinations."

Saina said that the Mittal Trust was truly a great boon to her. "They have made my participation in tournaments abroad a lot easier. I am also allowed to have a personal coach. I hope to have Gopi (Chand) Sir helping me from April onwards," she said.

Saina looks forward to better times this year. "Winning a berth for the Beijing Olympics and a good performance there are my prime goals," said the National champion, who is now ranked No. 27 in the World.


Proving a point

Chetan Anand, with sweat dripping from his face and body, rushed out of the hall after having won the last point that helped him secure his third National title. His mobile kept ringing as calls from well-wishers, who wanted to congratulate him, poured in.

Chetan looked quite content. For one who was not inclined to attend the National camp — he preferred to play in the super-series tournaments abroad — and thus became the centre of controversy, Chetan had a tough time explaining that his relationship with the National coach, P. Gopi Chand, has always been good.

Chetan, however, never looked the commanding player that he used to be in the domestic circuit. Stamina and fitness have been the areas of concern for him, and in Goa, his initial display clearly reflected this. The matches against opponents whom he should have disposed of quickly and easily often stretched. However, when it came to the big points, Chetan emerged the winner. The way he tamed Sachin Ratti gave indications that he was determined to extend his lease over the National title for another year.

The manner in which he defeated Anup Sridhar in the semifinals was outstanding. He then scalped Aravind Bhat, after which he said: “I have proved a point.”

According to Chetan, his victory in the Nationals was a shot in the arm as he looked forward to competing in tournaments abroad, especially the Beijing Olympics where he hoped to make an impact.

The results Inter-state — Men: PSPB bt Air India 3-2. Women: PSPB bt Railways 2-1.

Open events — Men’s singles: Chetan Anand (PSPB) bt Aravind Bhat (PSPB) 21-14, 22-20.

Doubles: Sanave Thomas (Kerala) & Rupesh Kumar (PSPB) bt Akshay Dewalkar (AI) and V. Diju (PSPB) 21-17, 21-17.

Women’s singles: Saina Nehwal (PSPB) bt Trupti Murgunde (PSPB) 21-11, 21-10.

Doubles: Jwala Gutta & Shruti Kurien (PSPB) bt Aparna Balan & Saina Nehwal (PSPB) 21-13, 21-11.

Mixed doubles: Jwala Gutta & V. Diju (PSPB) bt Aparna Balan (PSPB) & Akshay Dewalkar (AI) 21-8, 21-12.