Dev S Sukumar
Prakash Padukone, India’s most accomplished badminton player, is usually economical with words and is not given to sentimental outbursts. It was thus a surprise when, in a rare moment of candour with this writer, Padukone spilled out his thoughts on the state of Indian badminton. “What had happened in the 1980s is repeating again,” he said. “I’m worried and upset. I’ve done whatever I could for Indian badminton. (But now) I’m cutting down on my badminton activities gradually.”
Padukone chooses his words after much deliberation. Especially interesting was his comparison of the contemporary scene to the 1980s. Back then, all of Padukone’s individual successes were trumpeted as the success of the national association, the Badminton Association of India (BAI). Following Padukone’s retirement in the late 1980s, there was a sudden vacuum of talent as the national association hadn’t invested in a healthy domestic circuit. A dark period followed; the fog finally lifted when Padukone and Vimal Kumar started a private academy that helped groom youngsters such as Pullela Gopichand and Aparna Popat.
Although there are major differences between the 1980s and now, some parallels may be drawn. In Padukone’s place is Saina Nehwal, the gutsy young Hyderabadi who is among the best women’s singles players today. Saina’s performances over the last two years, especially her win of the Indonesian Open Super Series in June 2009, has pitched her into the spotlight in India and overseas. Predictably, the BAI has ridden piggyback upon her successes instead of focusing on the all-round growth of the game in the country.
The most visible sign of dysfunction of the BAI is that, over the last year, just three senior tournaments have been held in the country! Domestic tournaments are the bread and butter of the national circuit – they give promising players an opportunity to show their talent; keep international players on their toes, and help keep the game alive in people’s minds.
Instead, the BAI took the easiest way out – it sent Indian international players to several tournaments abroad and organized two international events in Hyderabad. While those measures are important, it did little to encourage those weren’t part of the international squad. Kerala’s Thomas Kurien is one such casualty of the BAI’s indifference to the national circuit. Thomas is a role model to his contemporaries for his work ethic and has done well whenever he has had the chance. Unfortunately, it has become impossible for players like him to challenge for their place in the international squad because they have had no opportunities to test established international players.
Apart from the conduct of tournaments, the BAI has failed on most other counts too – such as countering the overage menace in the junior circuit; popularizing the game across the country, or presenting a semblance of organization at major events.
Saina, Diju-Jwala shine
We shall now turn to the performances of Indian players on the international circuit.
The most visible of these was Saina Nehwal, the zenith of her accomplishments being the Indonesian Open Super Series title that she won in mid-June. To realize the enormity of this accomplishment, it is important to understand the level of the opposition. Having won two of her first three matches in tough three-setters, she proceeded to knock out two Chinese in succession – an extremely rare event in world badminton. Chinese women have dominated the game ever since they arrived on the scene in 1981. Indeed, apart from a few names like Camilla Martin and Tine Rasmussen (Denmark), Susi Susanti and Mia Audina (Indonesia) and Wong Mew Choo (Malaysia), few women have been able to challenge the Chinese successfully. Saina’s victory, and her subsequent rise to world No.6, have made her a popular figure among audiences across the world. More importantly, it signified the arrival of a new threat to Chinese domination.
Apart from the Indonesian Open, Saina had just about a decent year. Her best performances were the third round of five of the 11 Super Series events. She could not fulfill expectations at both events in front of her home crowd in Hyderabad – losing in the third round at the India Open and the World Championships. Towards the end of the year she reached the semifinals of the Masters in Kuala Lumpur and won the Syed Modi Memorial Grand Prix at Lucknow – but at both events the level of the opposition was below her standard. She lost a few times to the Chinese, including unknown names such as Xia Jingyun and Wang Xin. On the positive side, it has to be said that most of her losses came in tough three-set matches. Saina is renowned for her toughness on court – she never gives up until the end, and that was in evidence right through.
While Saina deserved all the attention she got, it was sad that the brilliant mixed doubles pair of V Diju and Jwala Gutta did not attract the same media coverage. In fact, the Calicut-born Diju and Hyderabadi Jwala, who is the daughter of a Chinese mother and Telugu father, were exceptional in climbing from world No.38 in December 2008 to world No.7 in exactly one year. No doubles pair in Indian history has had the kind of results this pair did in late 2008 and through 2009 – and yet, the lack of attention to this is staggering.
Diju and Jwala have beaten or troubled nearly every top pair, beginning with the upset of world No.1 Nova Widianto and Lilyana Natsir of Indonesia at the Korea Open last January. At the All England Open, they came within an inch of beating the Olympic champions Lee Yong Dae and Lee Hyo Jung; among their victims this year are Songphon/ Kunchala (Thailand, world No. 8); Robert Mateusiak/ Nadiezda Kostiuczyk (Poland, world No. 9) and Hendra Gunawan/ Vita Marissa (Indonesia, world No. 6). They reached the final of the India Open and the World Masters, and won the Chinese Taipei Grand Prix Gold in August. Jwala and Diju established their partnership in October last year, but have served the country with other partners for nearly a decade. It’s strange that they haven’t been feted across the country – indeed, neither has even won an Arjuna Award!
Much the same can be said of Kerala’s Rupesh Kumar and Sanave Thomas. They have soldiered on for the country over nearly a decade, and yet, real appreciation – from either the Sports Ministry or the BAI – has yet to come their way. Sanave earlier used to partner Diju in the men’s doubles, but it was Indonesian doubles coach Hadi Sugianto who suggested that a better combination would be Sanave with Rupesh.
While the two have not yet beaten any top-ten pair, they are a feared pair, and their achievements are among the best in Indian badminton history. They won two Grand Prix titles in 2009 – the New Zealand Open and the Bitburger Open, and reached the final of the Australian Open GP. Moments after winning the Bitburger, Rupesh said: “We feel good, but we don’t expect anything out of this. When we won the New Zealand Open GP (in July) the reception back home was cold.” Rupesh and Sanave are assets to the Indian team; like Jwala and Diju, they have lent solidity and all-round strength at international team events like the Sudirman Cup and the Commonwealth Games. One would hope that they are recognized by the government and the public. Kerala’s public especially needs to take note of its heroes.
The Super Series circuit, World and Asian Championships are the highest level of tournaments; the lesser ones are the International and Grand Prix series. There were a few Indian winners at this level. Chetan Anand won the Dutch Open, the Syed Modi Memorial GP, and reached the quarterfinals of the Macau GP. Other Indian titlists were Trupti Murgunde (Czech International) and Sayali Gokhale (Spanish Open). Youngsters such as Guru Sai Dutt and Aditya Prakash had some good results, and are likely to do better in 2010. Among the women, Kerala’s PC Thulasi holds a lot of promise – she reached the final of the national championships and the NPL Senior Ranking tournament in Bangalore. Indeed, Japan’s former top-ten player Yu Hirayama, who beat her at the India Open, was all praise for her. “She has a very strong heart,” she said.
It’s likely that Saina and Diju-Jwala will win more tournaments in 2010. However, tournament victories are only one indicator of the nation’s sporting health. Equal importance should be given to developing the game at all levels, encouraging public participation, conducting coaching clinics, developing a strong domestic circuit and so on. On these counts, however, BAI has much to catch up.