Tom John bids goodbye

Well-travelled coach will take over as Portugal’s head coach
Dev S Sukumar.DNA

Jan 11, Bangalore: Badminton’s been a lifelong journey for Tom John, the India-born Englishman who was coach at the Prakash Padukone Academy. The last 20 years have seen a constant shift in locale – from England to Portugal to Brunei to Hyderabad, and most recently, Bangalore. Having been here since March last year, it’s time for the journey to resume. John has landed an assignment as Portugal’s chief coach, and will leave next week.

“Well, you travel because your services are sought after,” Tom says. “I had a lot of freedom at the academy, I’m grateful for the opportunity that Padukone and Vimal game me. But Portugal is a nice place, I’ve been there before, and they gave me a good deal.”

John arrived in Bangalore in March of 2008 as Anup Sridhar’s personal coach; however, following injury to Anup, he worked with the others at the academy, getting them to work at levels even they never imagined possible. And so, if Aditi Mutatkar is today the World No.36 and fast rising, John had much to do with it.
John learnt his trade the hard way in the Eighties, helping England internationals such as Julia Mann and Peter Knowles and then World No.1 Morten Frost when the great Dane shifted his base to Wimbledon. By the time he arrived at the Padukone academy in 2008, his style of coaching was well known, for he had worked with a succession of Indian players, beginning with Vimal Kumar in the late Eighties, and then Gopichand, Nikhil Kanetkar, BR Meenakshi and Aparna Popat when they toured Europe.

Coaches don’t come any more colourful than him. John’s style is more on the lines of a boxing trainer – constantly needling his players, pushing them beyond their own physical limitations, haranguing, arguing, screaming and challenging them – quite a difference from the stern, staid aspect of the usual Indian coach. When players lag after long hours, John will prick their ego – rage at them, ask them if they were chicken-hearted, tell them to play with their grandmothers, and so on. It’s a style that’s not seen on badminton courts. It’s also a style that can have only one of two results – players either revolt, or they become devoted to him.

His running commentary is a personal style that he’s evolved, but he’s also picked up a lot from legends like Park Joo Bong, Rexy Mainacky and Yang Yang during their years in England. A few months ago, he was working with two youngsters, Ruth Misha and Prakash Jolly, preparing them for the Auckland International, and giving them a breathless mouthful even as they ran themselves ragged on the court. “Push, down, c’mon push, jump — quick! I want you to come here, yeah?” he points to the service line. “Down, push, jump up, in — quick! C’mon, c’mon! Walking like a soldier, not tired! We agree on that? Good. Down, down! Now off you go. Walk like a soldier! If you move slowly someone will shoot you down! It’s a battlefield. C’mon, be tough, c’mon, push, up to the net, go go go.”

Mutatkar, who trained with him at Brunel University in London in October 2007, talks of the time there: “I’d never done anything like that in my life. When you train Tom Sir will stand next to you and keep pushing you. You’ll get irritated, because he’ll keep telling in your ears ‘go faster, do this, do that’… Once I was so dead, I couldn’t continue, and he said something and I burst out crying. And I got so angry and completed the session just to show him. After that he hugged me and said: ‘that’s what I wanted from you’. He pushes you to think, he forces you to be independent.” Aditi was No.93 at the beginning of 2008. Today she is No.36, has beaten a couple of top-20 players, reached a Grand Prix final, and took the world No.1 to three games at the French Open Super Series in November.

John’s 58, and even his high-energy style of coaching, where he uses his mouth as much as his hands, doesn’t tire him. “The moment that happens, I’ll stop,” he says. “I get a lot of buzz when players want to improve. I’m enjoying the world circuit, that’s the stage when you see new players come through, and you’re meeting all the coaches.”

So it’s with mixed feelings that John will leave India. At the back of his mind he’ll know that he didn’t quite finish what he had set out to do – make Anup Sridhar a top-10 player. But Anup had his injuries, and Indian badminton is a strange animal that John cannot just fathom. He’s had the unique opportunity of having both the outsider’s and insider’s perspective on Indian badminton. He knows the material is there, but the system… “the system is… there’s no system,” he says. “Nothing positive is happening in Indian badminton. If there was a system, why don’t they publicise it? There hasn’t been a national tournament in the one year I’ve been here.”

“I’m sad to be leaving,” he announces as he prepares to leave the court after an extended special session with a player on a Saturday afternoon. He’s been on court since 7 in the morning; it’s past 4 now. “I like these players. Indian kids are more respectful and appreciative than English ones. Maybe I’ll come back sometime and start an academy of my own.”

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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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