On the eve of the biggest final of his career, Subhankar Dey went out with his roommate to walk through a local fair in Saarbrucken, Germany, and kept telling himself that winning the SaarLorLux Open title was the last thing he has to worry about.
After all, the 25-year-old had never imagined playing in a Super 100 final, leave aside winning a title, when he ran away from his home in Kolkata eight years ago because he wanted to pursue the sport while his mother wanted him to take up the Food Corporation of India job offered to him.
But on Sunday, the world number 64 showed the temperament of a champion and the guile of a battle-hardened journeyman to upset fifth seed Rajiv Ouseph 21-11, 21-14 and clinch the biggest title of his career.
It had been a phenomenal week for Dey as he overcame former World and Olympic champion Lin Dan in the second round and saved two match points in the semi-finals against China’s Ren Pengbo before booking his spot in the final.
“My only dream was to become a professional badminton player and I had to struggle even for that,” said Dey, while trying to control his emotions. “But I am thankful to my parents and especially my elder sister who stood by me and this title is dedicated to them.”
He added, “Even after beating Lin Dan, all I told myself was that I am playing well and should make the most of it. So I prepared similarly for the next-round match and thankfully I played very well [against Toby Penty].”
To say that Dey’s journey from the cement courts of Kolkata to the podium in Saarbrucken was difficult would be an understatement.
After leaving home, the youngster trained for couple of years with Shrikant Vad at the Syed Modi Academy in Thane before hopping through various training centres in India, as some coaches had problems with his approach while others couldn’t accommodate him for long.
With his career going nowhere, a break to play in the Danish League for Greve Strands Club provided Dey with an opportunity to hone his skills further and also play more international tournaments thanks to his base in Europe.
“Yes, playing for a club in Europe helped me play more tournaments,” Dey said. “But it was difficult to live all by myself. There used to be no one to talk to and once after winning the Portugal Open title in 2017 I spent two days at the airport because I wanted to see people and interact with them.”
Dey, who lived with a family in Denmark that did not charge him money as their child also played in the same club, would spend all his prize money, his Railways salary and the funds given by his elder sister to play tournaments and record his own matches as he never had anyone to coach him there.
He also began following the European system of studying his opponent’s videos and planning his match strategy in the absence of a coach.
The changes brought the desired results as he won the Iceland International and Portugal International in 2017 and also reached the semi-finals of the Senior Nationals in Nagpur last year after beating 2017 Singapore Superseries champion B Sai Praneeth.
He was, however, still overlooked for the national camp probably because he had left it midway back in 2014 when he was sent to Bengaluru to train with Saina Nehwal, while the rest of the men’s shuttlers were practising at Hyderabad.
Opening an academy
Instead of getting demotivated by the snub, Dey worked towards starting his own academy in Kolkata to provide local players and even those in India who are overlooked by the big centres an opportunity to train with quality coaches.
While he was clear that he had many years of badminton left in him, he hired Indonesian coach Nur Mustaqim Chayo to work with the trainees. Dey himself has been training at the same centre for the past few months.
“I never got an opportunity to train at the national camps or the big centres like Gopichand Academy or Padukone Academy,” said the shuttler, who is supported by the Lakshya NGO. “I was even asked to leave a few academies, while I couldn’t settle in some. So I decided to start an academy of my own and I am happy to finally work with the coach on my game.”
The academy, managed by his elder cousin Somnath Kar, has allowed Dey to focus solely on his training and preparations. In the SaarLorLux Open final, he showcased his ability to read the game and make a solid game plan as he did not allow Ouseph to attack and use his height advantage. “I did a lot of homework and it paid off. I watched his games. I was patient and knew I had nothing to lose,” he said.
The title would have definitely helped him gain confidence that his chosen way of putting in the hard yards do deliver the goods.