As one of the coaches present in Bangkok when India won the Thomas Cup in 2022, to be crowned men’s world team champions, Vimal Kumar was beaming when he spoke to the media. During that interaction, he had mentioned how the triumph should be a catalyst to the sport, as Kapil Dev and Co’s 1983 World Cup win was to cricket.
Speaking to Scroll.in at the sidelines of India Open, the director of Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy and former chief national coach, touched upon how India must maintain the momentum from that historic win. Having also worked closely with Lakshya Sen for many years now, Kumar also discussed the 21-year-old’s growth and areas that he needs to improve.
Excerpts from the interaction:
How does India keep the Thomas Cup momentum going? You had said back then that the win in Bangkok, one that you were a part of, was as big as 1983 cricket world cup win.
I am looking at quality of players. We have many shuttlers, but the quality of who can deliver at the highest level... that, I find slight shortage in. There is a big volume of players but finding quality is something we need to work on. We need to again try and find a small pool of players, looking at more youngsters, groom them. When I look at the next bright prospects, there is Lakshya Sen in singles, Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly in women’s doubles, then of course there is Satwik and Chirag. They are going to be around for some time. Maybe in men’s singles there are a few more youngsters coming up but the depth in other areas is something we need to work on.
That means more work to be done at junior level... how does India go up tapping talent then? Because in badminton, you typically see players breaking out really young at the international stage.
Yes, more work at junior level. One of the things I have in mind, is identifying 8-10 female players at a really young age. I was suggesting this at our academy, even to Prakash Padukone sir, and of course, I might put it across to Badminton Association of India as well. I want the project to be called something like Project Saina-Sindhu. Something like that might take a few years but I feel like we need to tap the talent in children when they are below 15 or between 10 and 15 years of age. There are some good youngsters around. I have already spotted 2-3 but I feel, 8-10 of them should be looked at as a goal.
We still have a lot more among the boys. This project is something I have very clear in my mind. I want to do that. I will definitely put this across. Let’s see what the BAI have in mind. I will need some state support as well.
It is important to make sure that the Thomas Cup win wasn’t a one-off. There is also a mixed team title at stake this year.
Even now, I am very hopeful. This year, the Sudirman Cup is happening (in May). Men’s singles, women’s doubles, men’s doubles is all good now. And we still have PV Sindhu who is good. If they all play to their potential we can look at again winning a team event, a mixed team title that we have never won.
Talking about Lakshya a bit, he had a great start to 2022. India Open title, All England final, Thomas Cup, Commonwealth Games. How does he sustain the high level? Staying in the top 10 is perhaps even harder than getting in there.
Well, it is not easy to get there but the numbers will get even more tough. Many players are of a similar level. I would say Viktor Axelsen is in another zone, he is dominating. It will drop at some point and others will catch up, that is bound to happen. But right now Viktor is a notch above everyone.
The others, I’d say about 20 of them are playing at a similar level. Anyone can beat anyone on their day. Li Shi Feng, Kunlavut Vitidsarn, Kodai Naraoka and Lakshya Sen... they are all the same batch of shuttlers. [There is] the slightly older lot of Lee Zii Jia and Loh Kean Yew. And of course, the Indonesians are there.
How does Lakshya stay in that mix? You could say now there is a target on his back, so to speak.
That is a part of sport. You can’t be thinking too much about those aspects. He should go about his own work, he needs to get stronger physically, needs to improve his strength aspect. He still can work on the timing in his smashes. He has lost some of it because last year he had surgeries and such things. He needs to get that back. Other than that, the pressure will be there. They know it, you don’t have to worry too much about it. Rankings will go up and down.
You mentioned strength. Does he also need to do more mental work?
He is mentally a very tough chap, I am not worried about that aspect. I am only worried about the injury part. So that is where he needs to take care of his body a lot more, he has to eat right, sleep right... these are things he needs to do better. At the highest level, these small things matter a lot.
Do you set goals for him, to be in the top 5 or top 10?
Not really, that is understood. That is there. When they are going through a low phase, you point it out. When they are on a high, you need to keep them grounded. Those are things we keep talking about.
Skill wise, what can Lakshya add to his game?
He must learn to play with drift. When there is wind, then he doesn’t open up and play freely. With the wind, he needs to learn to play. And I still think he can improve on his net game. Those are areas he can improve.
Speaking of drift, Saina Nehwal is considered to be one of the best in that aspect. What do you see for her in the near future? When she spoke at the India Open, she seemed fresh and enthusiastic about continuing to try and compete.
Yeah since I know her, how consistently she can play will be tough to say, but what I see is the spirit. That mental strength and the fight that she has, a lot of our players must learn from her. I wish many more of our players have that fight.
In terms of the coaching system currently, Gopichand has spoken about about the need for more players to come back to the system. We are now seeing Gurusaidutt working with the likes of Saina Nehwal, HS Prannoy. And there is Anup Sridhar working with Lakshya.
We have been speaking about for 10-15 years. The former internationals are very important. They have played at a level where they can relate. But we also need coaches with the mindset to be on court with the players. Not just travel. They have work on court, coaching is all about staying active, they have to be feeding players information. Once you cross a certain age, you can sit back and coach, but new coaches have to be fit and active, you should be able to spend time with shuttlers. It is slowly starting to change, but we still need more former internationals involved in coaching. We also have some SAI coaches doing really well. It’s a combination.
Managing an academy, are you now starting to identify talent separately in singles and doubles much earlier?
That is one of the things I have been talking about with few of the states to identify where there are pockets of good shuttlers. We have to go there and spot them. I want to devote a little time for grooming talent. Very keen on doing that. My strength is in singles but definitely doubles, at 14-15 [years of age], they need to specialise.
How do you see the road to the Paris Olympics? As good as Sindhu’s bronze in Tokyo was, we didn’t see the best of phases for Indian badminton in the lead-up to it.
We have three players in the men’s top 16, then there are one or two youngsters. I am quite hopeful about Mithun Manjunath, Priyanshu Rajawat and Kiran George. We need to see whether they can come into the top 25. If they can make a breakthrough, men’s singles will be good. Men’s doubles, I still feel it is Satwik-Chirag. They will definitely qualify, but other combinations have to improve a lot more and need more matches. I am also very hopeful of Gayatri-Treesa, young combination. They lost to the Chinese world No 3 pair here, but if they get more matches like that, they can level up.
Mixed doubles, is an area we have to see. Whether someone can qualify, it’s going to be a herculean task. Women’s singles, yes, Sindhu will be there but the second slot is going to be very tough. That’s where the project I have in mind should help.