Finn Kobbero, maverick strokeplayer of the badminton court, lit up Indian halls in his heyday
Dev S Sukumar.Bangalore
When news trickles into India of badminton legend Finn Kobbero’s death on Jan 21st, there will be a few sighs.
Those who have seen him at his prime – and there are many in India, for he played a few Invitation tournaments in this country between the late 1950s and the 1960s – are unlikely to have forgotten the spectacle.
He’s regarded as the best player not to have won the All England singles title. Handsome, a 6 ft 2” bearded giant who was the most stylish of his time, Kobbero and his contemporaries Erland Kops and doubles partner Hammergard Hansen dominated the world of badminton. A ‘rapier’ backhand, a wondrously dexterous wrist, and an imposing figure at the net, Kobbero made badminton into a high art.
He was good enough in singles to reach the All England final thrice, falling once to Malaysian Eddy Choong and twice to his legendary compatriot Erland Kops. As a doubles player of course he had no equal in his time – winning seven men’s and eight mixed doubles titles at the Mecca of badminton. He also led his country to the Thomas Cup final in 1955, beating the Indians in the semifinal, and indeed taking away the only match in the final against the rampant Malayans. Kobbero single-handedly decided the semifinal tie in favour of Denmark – for the Indians were a brilliant bunch, and had disposed off the last edition’s finalists, USA, in the previous tie.
Kobbero won his first doubles (with Hammergard Hansen) and then the critical singles match against Nandu Natekar to help Denmark take a 3-2 lead. They would eventually win 6-3.
The Indian pair of Gajanan Hemmady and Monoj Guha were ranked no.4 in the world and had never lost a Thomas Cup match – and they seemed on course to take the rubber with a 11-3 lead. “Kobbero single-handedly won that tie for Denmark, he won all four of his matches,” Gajanan Hemmady told this reporter a few months before he died on October 19 last year. “In the doubles we were comfortably ahead. At 11-3 I made a mistake. I’d noticed him inching forward while preparing to receive my serve, and so I flicked back. Unfortunately, it went out, and from then on, Kobbero controlled the game. He was brilliant, he had a tremendous variety of strokes, and he was very deceptive.”
The match against Natekar attracted a near-riotous audience, for the two were the greatest stroke-makers of their time. Natekar was stylish too, a cherubic genius who had a cult following in South East Asia. The hall was overflowing, tickets were even going in black at 200 Singapore dollars. The match turned out to be an exhilarating display of badminton; after a game each, Kobbero took the lead at 8-2 but Natekar caught up and ahead 10-9. Eventually, Kobbero had the stronger legs and triumphed, and the Danes managed to overcome the Indians to make the final against Malaya.
Kobbero was a hit in India. He was popular, and came to be known as a friendly and mischievous player. Playing a mixed doubles match, as his woman opponent prepared to serve to him, Kobbero winked at her; the flustered player faltered on serve and Kobbero and his partner won the match! He was also popular with the ladies, and spent so much time with them on the beach that in one tournament at Bombay, he was beaten by the wily Indian no.3 Amrit Lal Dewan who was aware of his nocturnal activities, and made good use of the Dane’s lack of sleep.
If Denmark is a badminton powerhouse today, Kobbero, Kops and their contemporaries deserve a good deal of the credit. He belonged to the generation of Danish players that asserted their dominance at the All England, and his exploits there doubtless created a badminton revolution in his country.