By Dev S Sukumar
An illustrious student returned to his alma mater some six years after he graduated. Siddharth Jain had lived through some memorable years at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, part of an early generation of trainees, but he had moved on since then, having left his active playing days behind, got busy with work, and didn’t spend much time wallowing in nostalgia. Now he was back for a brief while, training for a camp before the PSPB tournament, playing on the same courts that he had honed his skills on.
“It’s fun, I’m enjoying this,” he says, without a trace of wistfulness. “We had some great times here, but you can’t do that all the time. Now there’s less pressure while playing, it’s more about having fun.”
At his prime one of the best defensive players in the world, Siddharth could possibly have gone higher than world No.38. Some of his technique is still talked about as a model for upcoming players – the serve and toss, the height and length of which were impeccable; his racquet preparation for the defence, and an overall game that – while not in the league of a Gopichand – was sufficient to make world-class opponents wary of playing him. He was a great ‘front-runner’, that is, hard to beat if he had the lead, but wasn’t the sort who could climb out of a deficit. There were also problems with injury – a torn knee ligament in 1998, constant niggles to his right shoulder, and finally a thyroid problem that finished his professional career around 2002.
Those were years when the academy had the country’s best players – Gopi, Aparna Popar, BR Meenakshi, Siddharth, Nikhil Kanetkar, Vijay Lancy, Thomas Kurien. The boys stayed in a hostel: they were living together and playing together. And there were days when they would be playing the semifinals or finals of major tournaments, and then it would be so different, where they would give no quarter and ask for none; once the match was over, they’d get back to their rooms and it was like the match had never happened. “On court we were fiercely competitive, we’d even abuse each other,” Siddharth smiles. “But we never took those feelings back home. I’ve roomed with Gopi and Nikhil, I’ve never had a problem.”
This camaraderie was never so apparent as during the French Open. Siddharth had reached the final and was cramping. Kanetkar, who had lost his quarterfinal after serving match point, stayed up all night and massaged his legs. Siddharth went on to take the title.
And Gopi himself… the All England hadn’t yet happened, but Gopi was working towards it. “He’d always do a little extra in practice,” Siddharth recalls. “At the time we wondered what the point was, whether those extra ten minutes were going to make the difference, but then he showed they did. He was so deceptive, he could play five different strokes with the same action. I never had a problem with any national player, but with Gopi it was different. I had a mental block against him, I knew that he would attack at every opportunity. He had more on-court intelligence than me, he had stronger legs. I always lost to him in three games.”
Siddharth arrived in Bangalore in 1997 having dominated the junior-category events, and after having spent nine months recovering from his knee injury that he suffered early the next year, played his best badminton from 1999. That was the year he reached the Scottish Open final, which he lost to compatriot Gopichand. The next year he helped the Indian team qualify for the final rounds of the Thomas Cup and won the French Open and. At the Thomas Cup finals in Kuala Lumpur, playing second to Gopi in a depleted team (most of the others had contracted jaundice), he played his finest match – beating top-10 player Roslin Hashim of Malaysia.
Looking back, he says he’s content. Perhaps he could’ve done a few things differently. Maybe, like Gopi, he could’ve played in a league in Europe, maybe things would’ve turned out differently then. “I didn’t think of it at the time,” he says. But he’s fine with the way things are: happy with knocking around with state players at a club, happy with his assignments as a national coach, and happy with life in Chennai as an officer with ONGC. The game’s changed for Siddharth Jain.
(Published in DNA, Jan 13, 2009)