On any given evening, the current lockdown due to coronavirus outbreak probably being the only exception, the badminton courts of the PJ Hindu Gymkhana in Mumbai are packed with middle-aged men and women having a good time playing the sport.
In between all the hullabaloo and fun, a gentleman sporting a French beard is not only mesmerising them with the quality of his strokes, but also giving tips and trying to help them improve the standard of play.
The respect for the former India international is clearly visible, but not many playing there probably know that Leroy D’sa, the jovial doubles partner for many, holds a unique record in Indian badminton.
The 66-year-old is the only Indian badminton player to have won three medals in one Asian Games edition and has a total of four medals in his trophy cabinet, highest so far.
In fact, till PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal clinched the women’s singles silver and bronze medals respectively in 2018, India’s only individual medals had come in the 1982 editions at home and D’sa claimed two of the three bronze the Indian contingent won. While Syed Modi finished on the podium in men’s singles, D’sa joined hands with Pradeep Gandhe in men’s doubles and Kanwal Thakar Singh in mixed doubles to clinch two third-place finishes.
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The two medals in the pair events were even more special since India was considered a contender in doubles at major international meets. Both of D’sa’s partnerships at the 1982 Asian Games were scratch combinations as he hadn’t played with his partners in the domestic or the international circuit.
“In men’s doubles, I used to partner Sanat Mishra while Pradeep used to partner Madhur Bezbaruah. But just before the camp and subsequent trials the coaches decided to combine our respective partners as they wanted a young pairing. But me and Pradeep were called for the initial camp and the trials and hence we decided to team up. We won the trials and that is how we became the country’s first pair for the Asian Games,” said D’sa, who played doubles with many different partners even in the domestic circuit.
“In the mixed doubles, me and Kanwal practiced just once a week since she was also playing women’s singles and doubles and we rarely had time to practice mixed doubles,” he added.
Out of his seven men’s doubles national titles, three each came in partnership with Prakash Padukone (1973, 76, 77) and Sanat Mishra (1983, 84, 86), one with Suresh Goel (1974), while he also finished runners up in five editions. His sole mixed doubles title came in 1980 with Ami Ghia while he finished runners up thrice.
D’sa was probably the first top flight Indian badminton player to give up on singles and only concentrate on doubles in the 70s as the likes of Uday Pawar, Gandhe, Vikram Bisht and all others used to play both singles and doubles.
This meant that he would, at times, be left out of foreign exposure tours given the limited number of berths and players who played in both events got preferred. “Yes, it was a risk I took. But that also spurred me to become the No 1 doubles player in the country,” he added.
D’sa learnt the ropes of the game in Hyderabad, where his father was posted with the Reserve Bank of India. He honed his skills in Kanpur before moving back to Mumbai, where he was employed by the Railways in 1974. There was little formal coaching during that period and most players would just come together to practice every day.
It was no different for D’sa, who would do his regular job as a guard on the Mumbai suburban trains before heading to Hindu Gymkhana for practice. “We were not full-time badminton players. I used to do a regular job with the Railways. The only concession I had was that I was given a fixed detail to work and used to get leaves for tournaments and camps.”
With almost all the players in that generation following a similar schedule, doubles players used to hardly train together through the year like the current day stars. They would mostly come together at the domestic tournament venue and practiced for a few sessions before the start of the event.
“I was in Mumbai, Suresh Goel was in Banaras, Sanat in Odisha and Prakash in Bangalore. Even players in Mumbai rarely played together. But we all understood the concept of doubles very well and hence whenever we played, people felt we used to train together,” D’sa explained.
National camps were also sporadic and only held before a major tour in the 70s. But because India was going to host the 1982 Asian Games, things began to change and that helped the Indian contingent.
D’sa explained: “We used to practice with local made shuttles but during these national camps we got to play with the imported shuttles and also in big halls. The Indian shuttles used to break after one big smash but because we were training with imported shuttles before the Asian Games we got used to playing longer rallies, hitting multiple smashes. This also improved our stamina and that helped us in the tournament.”
But twice in the tournament, D’sa and Gandhe were given a lesson in fitness and tactics by Indonesia’s Icuk Sugiarto and Christian Hadinata, who came from behind in both matches the two pairs played. “In the team championship semi-final, we had won the first game and leading in the second. We thought we were on top and went on an all out attack and they tired us out to win the match. Even in the individual event semi-final, they adopted a similar strategy after losing the opening game. Looking back, we were found wanting strategically against them,” said D’sa.
Indonesians were at the top of their game then and D’sa and Kanwal Singh were undone in the mixed doubles semi-final. But the long term camps did help the Indian contingent win a silver medal at the 1983 Asian Championship in Kolkata and the players did perform remarkably better on the international circuit. D’sa, Modi, Uday Pawar and Prakash Padukone then went on to win another Asian Games bronze medal at the 1986 Seoul Games, the last time an Indian men’s team or individual stood on the podium at the continental games.
After retiring, D’sa had been involved in the national coaching camp during SM Arif and U Vimal Kumar’s tenures and was court-side when current national coach Pullela Gopichand bagged the 2001 All England title. He, along with Uday Pawar and Indonesia’s Hadi Sugiyanto, were instrumental in shaping the careers of Jwala Gutta, Shruti Kurien, Rupesh Kumar, Sanave Thomas and V Diju among others while he also worked with Vincent Lobo, Vikrant Patwardhan and a few other players at Hindu Gymkhana.
The 66-year-old, who continued to play at the state level till in his late 50s, insists that one of the major reason for the decline of the game in the city that once produced many national and international players is the lack of playing opportunity for budding shuttlers. “When we were playing here, the players got priority. But now coaching is restricted to a period when members are not playing and that is not enough.”
Speaking about the health of doubles in India, D’sa insisted that things are moving in the right direction with specialised coaches coming in and players getting all the facilities required. He, however, gets very upset when players at the domestic level cite lack of practice time together as an excuse for their losses.
“It is very good if you can practice together,” he said. “But to excel in doubles, you need to have a good understanding of the game. I have seen many singles players play good doubles and win matches when required for their team because they understood the game well. In the current scenario, it is difficult to take the load of playing singles and doubles and players specialise. But to succeed, you have to think and study the game a lot more.”
The only regret for D’sa and many of the players of his era is that their efforts were not even recognised by the government. No badminton player got an Arjuna Award or any other recognition due to the issues between the Sports Ministry and then Badminton Association of India administration.
“My name was recommended multiple times between 1982-88 by BAI but somehow I missed out.
“I felt hurt. By getting these awards your status changes [within the sports fraternity]. Unfortunately people like me, Uday and others also don’t have the Olympian tag,” he added.