The two Under-19 singles champions at the recently concluded Junior National Badminton Championship in Guwahati were awarded a Maruti Suzuki Alto car each as the winner’s prize.
It would have been a delight for girls singles champion Aakarshi Kashyap, 16, and boys winner Aryamann Tandon, 18, to become owners of a four-wheeler at such a young age. But in the bigger scheme of things it was the worst possible award to be given by the organisers.
Because cars were only given to singles winners, while the doubles champions came home with a collective prize purse of Rs 52,000, or Rs 26,000 per player.
It is completely understandable that the number of cars that would have had to be given if the individual doubles winners were also to be rewarded would have gone up exponentially because such a prize cannot be equally divided among partners.
But then it would have been prudent not to give such a prize in the first place as, sub-consciously, the move only ended up sending a signal to the future stars that only singles was the lucrative option.
And this, in a period when the Badminton Association of India and its coaches have been constantly speaking about their vision of producing more doubles stars in the country to make India powerhouse in the sport.
Going against world trends
Unlike other racket sports like tennis, table tennis and squash, where doubles is always a secondary event with little importance even in team championships, the combined events have a near-equal status in badminton. This is precisely why the Badminton World Federation’s prize money structure gives a slightly higher share to doubles winners in international tournaments as the amount is to be divided among two players.
In fact, the Commonwealth Games and Sudirman Cup mixed-team championship ties have three doubles and two singles matches. India has always struggled in these tournaments due to the lack of doubles prowess. In India, most players start playing doubles seriously only after they fail trying to make a mark in singles, or if they are making a comeback from career-threatening injuries, or are on the verge of retirement.
World championship bronze medallist Jwala Gutta and her partner Shruti Kurien were the first to take the bold step to concentrate on doubles when only singles stars got prominence in the country. Ashwini Ponnappa followed in their footsteps and along with Sikki Reddy, who shifted to doubles after a knee surgery, are the lone flag-bearers of women’s doubles in the country right now.
The talent cabinet may not be as bare in the men’s doubles department but there is very little competition for the top two-to-three pairs in the country.
Candra Wijaya, former doubles world champion from Indonesia, once equated playing and succeeding in doubles to being married to the partner and how knowing each other’s personality well was extremely important.
This is precisely why the foreign doubles coaches in India have time-and-again emphasised on the need for picking the doubles players early and grooming them.
But it has been a challenge all along since there are no academies at the grass-root level in India to identify and nurture doubles talent. Most of the top juniors also do not want to focus on the pair events since there is not much exposure for the same.
This means doubles players probably need more incentives than singles stars at the junior level and what happened in Guwahati would not help the cause in any way.
The Assam Badminton Association, which organised the junior Nationals, is also the home state of BAI president Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma and hence it sends a very wrong message to any player who is even thinking of making a career in doubles.
It was the same association which started a similar trend back in 2009 when they awarded a Maruti Suzuki A-Star to the singles winners and Saina Nehwal, who was not even playing the senior Nationals. The doubles prize money was around Rs 10,000 each and Haryana went one step ahead by giving a Maruti Suzuki SX4 the following year.
Gutta was the only player to raise a hue and cry during that period and the BAI has tried to bring in a parity in prize money over the years at the Nationals. But the Assam Badminton Association’s decision this year has taken another step towards increasing the disparity between singles and doubles players and we can only hope that this does not become a trend.