It has been a golden year for Indian badminton. PV Sindhu’s World Championships silver and her rise up the rankings after her historic Olympic silver last year, Saina Nehwal’s inspiring comeback from surgery, young Lakshya Sen becoming junior world No 1 and, of course, the re-emergence of K Srikanth, who has arguably been the men’s singles player of the year with three Superseries titles – it’s been a year of many success stories.
But Rome, as they say, was not built in a day.
Many years ago, a youngster won the senior and junior National titles in the same year in 1971 – an unprecedented feat. A few years later, in 1980, that very youngster became the first Indian to win the prestigious All England title. And he would go on to become the first Indian player to be ranked No 1 in the world. That youngster’s name was Prakash Padukone.
Padukone, with this success at the world stage, could well be considered the first international superstar Indian sport had produced. His triumphs, to till this date, are seen as the landmark moment for badminton in India.
“Before 1980, badminton was being played but it was what I would call a minority sport, a minor sport,” Padukone recalled in a video interview with Scroll.in’s Smitha Nair. “There was not much coverage, nobody knew what badminton was. Only the players who played knew, their parents knew. There were not many facilities, not much money, there was not much international exposure, nobody knew who the players were.”
But post 1980, everything changed. “It became a major sport… it was probably in the top five [in India],” Padukone added. “After football, hockey, cricket, tennis people started following badminton since I was doing well. I think for any sport it requires one player – if they are at the top, that sport automatically gets more coverage, people start following. Then, it’s upto the federation, to the people to take it to the next level. To make it more popular. Of course, there was a time when it didn’t really grow. The federation did not take advantage of my being on the top.”
While things did not immediately improve, Padukone took things into his own hands and opened a badminton academy and even started his own federation. Padukone’s radical move opened the doors to real change in Indian badminton administration.
“Within 2-3 years we started doing well at the Commonwealth Games. [Pullela] Gopichand won the All-England [in 2001] – otherwise between 1980 when I won and 2001 when Gopi won there was nothing significant that happened in Indian badminton, though there was a lot of talent,” he said.
“No tournament was being conducted, no camps… no opportunities to go out and play… there was no initiative from the federation, so that time I would blame the federation for not taking the lead, the initiative to transform badminton. Now it’s a totally different ball game.”
With Gopichand going down the same path as his mentor by starting his own academy post-retirement, things have changed drastically. From winning just the occasional title, Indians are now a recognised badminton powerhouse in the world circuit.
“Sindhu and Saina have played a major part in the resurgence of Indian badminton. They have been mainly responsible with their performances. Of course the men have also – like Srikanth, HS Prannoy, Sai Praneeth have all contributed but I think it’s mainly the two girls, Sindhu and Saina – they have been real superstars,” Padukone said.
So what exactly changed?
“There was a time when Indian players were scared of Chinese players. You know the moment the draw comes out – they see okay if [in the] first round [it’s a] Chinese [opponent], then finished. It doesn’t matter what name – just that China is there – they said I don’t think I can go beyond that,” said Padukone.
“Things have completely changed – it’s the other way around. The Chinese player will probably see [the draw] now and say, ‘If [there is an] Indian player I am finished – I can’t go beyond.’ So I am happy that we are no longer scared of the Chinese, or the Danes or the Koreans. We are on par with them. We are not scared of any country… we are not scared of any player, because we have beaten all the players. It’s a question of being consistent trying to beat them in the important events like the Olympics and the World Championships, the All-England.”
And sure enough, such wins are no longer a rarity in Indian badminton.
You can watch the full video interview with Prakash Padukone here: