Taufik takes a stroll

Dev S Sukumar. Birmingham

March 12: Around half-an-hour after he lost a gut-wrenching battle to old friend and rival Peter Gade, 20-22 22-20 22-20, Taufik Hidayat quietly made his way out of the NIA. A trainer accompanied him, but neither said a word.

Just outside the entrance a Chinese fan accosted him for a photograph. Taufik looks indifferent, but poses, and then walks on. It’s cold, as it has been all week. I follow a short distance away.

I’ve been wanting to catch Taufik for a long interview. But he’s a moody chap, and looks bored during most interviews. Besides, I’m wondering whether to trespass on his already tortured soul.

He was so close to making the All England semis. This is the one title missing in his resume.. otherwise it’s pretty complete. He’s got the World Championships, the Olympic gold and the Asian Games gold. It’s kind of sad that the most prodigiously gifted badminton player of the last decade should not have the All England. He was looking in good form this year, he probably knows it was his last realistic chance.

The two pass by a cafe that has a pretty fountain. Up ahead, a few fans — probably Indian — recognise him and approach him for a photo. This time he’s more gracious, and even smiles.

I finally work up the nerve and walk up to him. Does it hurt, Taufik, I ask the obvious.
Surprisingly, he shrugs. “It’s just a game, you know. It’s okay. Losing is part of it.”
Will you be back next year, I ask.
“Yes, I will…” he looks unsure.
And the London Olympics?
“I don’t know… it’s too far off.”

He was nice. Usually he isn’t so courteous. Taufik is the world’s badminton superstar. Millions adore him, and he responds in a strangely casual way. He’s been accused of all sorts of things too – of being arrogant, disrespectful, and so on. But like Sachin Tendulkar in cricket, Taufik was a superstar even in his teens. By the time he was 17 Indonesia realised they had a genius in him. From then on he was expected to be the one answer to Indonesia’s problems — to lead a crumbling team in the face of the overwhelming Chinese, to live up to their glorious tradition of Hartono and King and all the others.

Part of the following for Taufik is his human frailties. Badminton is not an obsession for him, it’s a game. He treats the opponent like a ringmaster does a beast in a circus — he directs what they should do. And yet, there are times when he turns up and neither his body nor his soul are really in it. When he will be inspired, and when he will fool around, is anybody’s guess.

But what a player, and what a talent! And how remarkable that two of the greatest players the game has seen should be of the same era — Taufik and his remarkable opponent Lin Dan, who is so different from him. Lin is the most complete player in history; the most accomplished. And yet, there is something missing from the great Chinese left-hander — the ability to create magic, to transport audiences to a different world using just a badminton racket. Taufik can do it. He can paint with his racket. Lin cannot — he wields a rapier. Like Nadal and Federer at the peak of their rivalry, Lin Dan and Taufik Hidayat represent the entire spectrum of badminton ability. If Lin needs to be defined, it could be as what Taufik is not.

This is a Friday and Taufik and his companion are at Broad Street. There is a carnival going on — girls rushing into a disco, all dressed in green; a clown with fiery red hair, and assorted other freaks out on the weekend. Taufik stops to glance. He’s got a faint smile. How long before he decides to call it a day?

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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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