‘Badminton? That’s for girls!’

Erland Kops’ initiation into badminton happened with those words. His tough-guy image and the seven All England titles would come in due course

Dev S Sukumar. Odense
erland kops
Erland Kops. The name is like its bearer — evoking images of toughness, masculinity, a quiet menace. There is no romance in the name, just an air of finality. Photographs of him in the late Fifties and Sixties show a bearded, muscular man with no hint of levity on his face.

It’s a long time since those days, but Erland Kops still maintains that aura. The waistline might have extended, the hair turned white, but the man who was relentless in his conquest of badminton glory still has a toughness that’s impossible to miss. That toughness brought him seven All England titles and triumphs across Asia and Europe. Erland Kops is among the greatest of them all.

And yet, it was no machismo that brought him the name, but a girl he was in love with. Erland Kops was born Erland Olsen, and the girl didn’t like the name at all. ”Olsen was a common name in Denmark,” says the legend, who was at the Denmark Open, and takes a keen interest in the contemporary game. ”So she didn’t like it, and asked me to change it. In those days you could buy a name from the government. My mother’s family name was Kops, so she bought that name for me. But… the girl didn’t marry me anyway.”

Still, it was after the name changed that his first All England title came, in 1958. Kops became a badminton pilgrim. Having stopped eight successive years of Malayan dominance, he got a job with the East Asiatic Company and moved to Bangkok for three years. Malaya had left Europe trailing in its wake; indeed, no European had succeeded in humid Asian conditions. For the next few years he played all over Asia, familiarising himself with their style, becoming the first European badminton player to explore what was earlier a land of fable and myth.

He travelled in India more than any other country. People of that time still speak in awe of him, and his matches against Nandu Natekar, TN Seth, Amrit Lal Dewan and the others. ”I’ve been to every place in the north, and Hyderabad in the south. Nandu was a beautiful, stylish player. But after more than half an hour, he had no stamina left, and my style — I could run for days. There were a number of other talented players… it was always a problem playing them. You always had to fight for it.”

”I’ve played a lot of matches all over India under very very peculiar circumstances. Sometimes one side of the court would be higher than the other, so we would look down at our opponents in one game and up at them in the next! That was very funny.”

Kops’ hunger for victory came from no dire circumstances; he was from a well-to-do family. He would pass a badminton court on the way to school, and one day spotted a friend carrying a peculiar bag. Told that it contained a badminton racquet, the eight-year-old Erland said: ”Badminton? That’s for girls!”

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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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