Beijing beckons

BEIJING is coming up, and Anup Sridhar, India’s highest ranked badminton player, is looking strong and confident. The long sessions with personal coach Tom John are showing — he has added upper body muscle, and that old swagger of his memorable year, 2006, is back. Peaking for Beijing, one might say.

The badminton world at the highest level is a curious place. Unlike the flair and colour that one gets to see in tennis, badminton is an unusually stoic sport, for it is the preserve of the Chinese and other East Asians, who’ve never known to be very expressive. The little bit of belligerence there is comes from the Europeans, but there aren’t too many of them in any tournament.

Into this menu a Bangalorean brought in his own recipe in August of last year at the World Championships, showing both European belligerence and Oriental stoicism. With wins over the reigning Olympic champion and a former All England winner, the Bangalorean had announced himself in style – and such was the impact that a lot of former stars predicted bright things for him.

But things didn’t quite turn out that way. A troublesome foot has seen him play in pain, and by his standards, it has been a topsy-turvy period. Sports, they say, is a microcosm of life; sportsmen, as a consequence, go through much more in their short career spans than most people in their lifetimes. With those experiences comes maturity, and Anup certainly isn’t a typical 26-year-old thinking of the next on-site project in the US.

For he has already put himself through much. In 2005, still 22, he decided to move to Denmark to play with a club, and that was the first time he had stayed by himself for such a prolonged spell. It was also the first taste he had of life as a badminton professional – long waits at airports, expensive European food, doing his own laundry and cooking his food. When he returned he seemed to belong to a different planet – just before the national championships final at Bangalore, when someone asked him if he was feeling any pressure, he said: “I just don’t care. I’m going to win.”

That sort of statement can be misinterpreted as arrogance, but the professional sportsman needs it. It doesn’t come from an egotistical self-indulgence, but from a heightened awareness – a superconfidence that all sportspeople crave for.

It is two years since, and Anup still mentions that time. “I think I’m getting back to that state of mind,” he says. “I’m not yet there, but close. It’s a state when, you know, you don’t care who your opponent is, you know you’re going to win.”

Anup was born in Delhi and moved to Bangalore when he was five. Both his parents are bankers, his father with Vijaya Bank and his mother with Bank of Rajasthan. The space outside their home on Victoria Road was always teeming with kids, and he looks back fondly at that time. “I think it’s the best time I’ve had, ever. We’d play every sport – football, cricket, badminton. It’s really sad that you don’t find kids playing any more, they’re all into computer games. We’d play all day during summer, and our parents had to drag us indoors.”

It’s the sort of thing one can expect from a Bangalorean, and Anup, despite having traveled all over the world and lived in Europe, is a quintessential Bangalorean. He talks about the things most Bangaloreans do, their yearning for the quiet world of the Eighties, their distaste for what happened to it after the IT boom; movies, rock concerts, old hangouts like Lake View. (“I think they make the best ice creams in the world.” he once gushed.)

Indeed, Anup feels so deeply about Bangalore that he talks about being identified “as a Bangalorean and Josephite first, and then as an Olympian or badminton player”.

Having joined the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy when it started in 1994, Anup’s progress has been steady, but not spectacular. He wasn’t a child prodigy – in fact, he had not even won a national title in any junior age group. He was known as a mischievous and temperamental lad. Once, at a junior state-level tournament in Mandya, he stole a press photographer’s wallet and refused to return it unless his picture was taken!

Growing up, he had his share of problems on court. In the final of one junior tournament he swore at the umpire, and the shocked umpiring fraternity threatened to take disciplinary action unless he apologised. Which he did, over the phone from Bangalore.

Since the time he won his first national title in 2005, he has experienced several highs and lows. His best performances have made experts predict he’s destined for the top-10 of world badminton; while his below-par performances make his coaches tear their hair in frustration.

But through it all, what stands out is his willingness to experiment on himself, to take the gamest of chances. He has had two stints with clubs in Denmark; the second was so grueling that he once flew halfway across the world to play one match and honour his contract. He hired a personal coach, Tom John, because he felt he was stagnating, and needed someone to push him a bit more. Tom lives close to the badminton stadium, and Anup decided to live with him for a while, to think of badminton 24 hours. All this will no doubt add up – but whether it adds up at Beijing is too early to predict.

About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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