It was October 6, 2008 and also my birthday. It was a special day. I was in Germany and was scheduled to play the final of the Bitburger Open Grand Prix against Maria Febe of Indonesia. It was only the second time an Indian woman since Saina Nehwal, had broken into the finals of a Grand Prix event in badminton.
I was ready for the final. I was having problems believing I was playing the final but I had kept it aside and only focused on winning.
I had played a great tournament. Everybody I played right from the first round was ranked higher than me. I was ranked 73rd in the world when I entered this tournament. My personal high point was beating Germany's Juliane Schenk, who was the world No. 11 at that time and someone I admired. She was a gutsy player and had great character on court. I beat her pretty comfortably 21- 14, 21-16. That match was a testament for me that something good was happening.
The final against Maria Febe was a long match. It lasted almost an hour. I had won the first game, lost the second and then had three match points in the third game. I could not convert a single one of them and lost the match 22–24, 21–8, 23–21.
After the match, a lot of emotions were going through my mind. I was first in shock and disbelief that I could not convert the final. From there, I felt a sense of anger and a lot of it. Winning this tournament was very important to me. I had gone through a great deal of struggle, both emotionally and physically, to reach there. One may well wonder why out of all the emotions, the single-most overwhelming emotion for me was anger when I stood on that podium.
Running for sponsorship
In early August that year, I was in Bangalore training for the upcoming European circuit in October, starting from the Bitburger Open. I had just recovered from a bout of measles in July and it felt so good to be on court and work hard. I finished training and came out of the court when Vimal Kumar, my coach, told me that the government was having some problems with sponsoring the whole team and I would no longer be going for the European circuit. I thought about it for a week.
I told myself that I had to play this circuit. I was in good form and I just needed to do this. I spoke to my parents and told them that we needed to start finding sponsors. I was going to be playing five tournaments in a span of three months and would be training in a centre in Paris with the former world No. 6 Julia Mann from England, between tournaments. The whole trip would cost me Rs 4 lakh and I did not want my parents to pay for it.
I was the second-best Indian player then after Saina Nehwal by ranking, and had some good performances in the recent past. I was also in the top 100 of the world rankings and I thought this was good enough to get me some sponsorship. The hunt for sponsors was the one most important learning lesson of my life. I started with the company I worked for then, Bharat Petroleum. They were gracious enough to give me an amount of Rs 50,000 for which I was truly grateful and still am. It was a good start and I felt optimistic.
After Bharat Petroleum, I approached six potential sponsors who I thought would be gracious enough to help. The first one told me he only sponsored cricketers, the second one told me to send him my resume and he would get back to me, which he never did. The third one was never in office when I called. The fourth one told me, “Get into the top 20 and I will then proudly sponsor you.”
The fifth one promised to reimburse my ticket once I got back – he never did. The last, but not the least, had a small jewellery brand and told me that sponsoring a player would not help his brand, as players did not wear jewellery.
Winning is everything
By the end of my search, I was frustrated, dejected and emotionally tired. My parents told me to stop this search and focus on badminton. My father told me that if it was so important to me, he would take up a loan, ask his friends to loan him money – basically, do whatever it takes to make it happen.
“The only thing you have to do,” he said, “is win."
He took the loan and I self-taught myself to budget my expenses. In the nights after training I would look for the cheapest flights and the cheapest hotels. I was going to travel alone, live alone, be my own coach, my own physiotherapist, and after taking care of all this, I also had to win.
The long journey to success
After all this, I finally reached Germany after a week in France with Julia Mann. I sadly had not been able to find a cheap hotel by then and had to check into the official hotel of the tournament. A single room in the hotel cost me €120.
During my first night in the hotel, I did the math in my head and realised that if I lived there through the week, I would burn all my money and not be able to sustain myself till the end of the three-month period. I hardly slept the first night. The next morning was the qualifying day and I did not have a match, so I started my search for a cheaper hotel. I had four hours before my check-out time and walked for almost three hours before I found a hotel that had a room available.
The room that I lived in was at the end of a dark alley which looked scarier at night. It was a very small room with a small bed and one table and a chair. It did not have an attached bathroom so I had to shower at the stadium. All these things did not matter to me then. I was paying close to €50 for this room and it solved my problem.
I played my first round after I spent a sleepless night in my small room. Every sound in the corridor would wake me up. I somehow scraped through my first round. I played a bad match and felt angry at myself. I had not gone through all this trouble to play horribly and if I had to win, I needed to gather more courage. My day’s budget for food was €10-15. So I was not eating too well either. The moment I spent €17, I would feel the budget diary shouting at me.
I would mostly feed myself the stuff my mother had sent me and carry three litres of water to my room because I did not want to spend on water.
On court, I became much more alert after the first round. I slept and ate badly throughout the tournament, but I knew one thing: I needed to perform. My parents had done so much to get me here. With all the resolve and courage I could gather that week, I reached the final and I could not win it.
When I stood on the podium with the silver medal around my neck, I felt angry at every potential sponsor I had approached and almost begged to give me some money so that I could play. I felt angry at what my parents had to go through because of me to raise that Rs 4 lakh. I needed to win for them.
It was only when the Indian flag went up that I realised that maybe, I had still achieved something special after all, and that was when I really smiled for the first time.
We are all to blame
This is just one story of an angry athlete on a podium. Indian sport is full of such stories. Most of them are of much tougher struggles. There is a need for us Indians to stop blaming the government for everything and realise that we as citizens share an equal part of the blame when we ask why we do not win more medals. We need to ask ourselves the tough questions too and not just the system.
Do we tell our children to be fearless and pick up a racket instead of a book? Does every coach in India give free coaching to a player with potential but no money? Do the rich among us think twice before saying no to sponsor even a few thousand rupees to a potential medal winner from their seemingly wealthy piggy bank? Do we know as much about the young women in our Indian hockey team like Sunita Lakra or Lilima Minz as much we know about Sachin Tendulkar?
There are so many questions to which our honest answers would prove that we never give importance to our own athletes. We fail to understand that though it is important to give Sakshi Malik a crore after she wins a medal, it is much more important to give her a crore before she wins it.
The government can make all the Olympic task forces they want but if we as citizens do not become more aware about our athletes and their problems right from the grass-root level we are never going to be able to win more medals.
With all due respect, if Shobhaa De and more of their ilk swallow their wisdom and not post it on Twitter, and sponsor an athlete instead, I can promise them they would be less depressed about our performance at the Olympics.
Postscript: By the end of three months, I did break into the top 30. I followed up this tournament with two semi-finals appearances in back-to back-weeks. I returned a large part of the loan using the prize money. The silver medal I won at the tournament and the two bronze medals ensured I could pay back the rest.
Aditi Mutatkar is the winner of five national badminton championships – under-13, under-16, under-19 and senior nationals – and has represented the Indian badminton team in international tournaments.