The undoubted Indian badminton superstar of the last century was Prakash Padukone.
Padukone wasn’t really the first men’s badminton player from India to dominate the domestic circuit or make a mark on the international scene. But he was definitely the most successful and had an affable personality that made him the darling of the entire nation.
And his popularity has hardly waned in badminton circles, a fact that was all the more visible at the function in New Delhi where the BAI honoured him with the lifetime achievement award in January 2018. Padukone had asked BAI to invite everyone who had played with him at the national camp or in the Indian team for the function and had a table set for everyone to have a team dinner at the end of the function with his daughter and Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone and wife Ujjala.
On the court, it was his delectable touch play, the quality of his half smashes and the overall reading of the game that mesmerised fans across the globe. When Padukone dreamt of becoming a badminton champion, the sport was dominated by the shuttlers from North and Western India, as the southern part of the country was more enamoured by ball badminton. But Padukone’s father Ramesh had been attracted to the shuttle game and was instrumental in promoting it in and around Malleswaram, the Bengaluru locality where he lived, and his son simply took to it like fish to water.
Though Padukone had started making waves in the junior circuit by the age of twelve, he stormed into the limelight when he became the first player to clinch the junior and Senior National crown together at the 1971 Madras Nationals which were actually played in February 1972 due to the Indo-Pak War. It was a period when both the junior and Senior Nationals were held simultaneously and Padukone played in five events in the competition, winning three – including the Inter-State Junior Championship.
He went on to create history by bagging the Senior National crown for nine successive years, a record that was equalled in 2005 by Aparna Popat in women’s singles. He also became the first Indian to clinch the Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1978, which is probably why not many the past remember the women’s doubles bronze medal of Ami and Kanwal in the same edition.
Padukone had many more firsts to his name including bagging the 1983 World Championship bronze, helping India win the men’s team bronze in the 1974 Asian Games and scaling the summit of the unofficial world ranking with his consistent performance in 1980 and 1983. He also formed a formidable partnership with Uday Pawar in the team events and helped India qualify for the Thomas Cup in 1988 by winning the deciding doubles.
But he will be remembered in Badminton’s Hall of Fame for becoming the first Indian All England champion back in 1980, a result that became a marker for judging any future Indian badminton star.
So much so that every time former world and Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat came to India for any tournament or promotion event, the one question that was invariably asked to the Indonesian was: what did he feel about never winning the All England?
When Padukone won the All England, it was considered to be the most prestigious tournament in the entire calendar, given the history of the tournament and the tag of it being the unofficial World Championship, though the world body had begun its official World Championship in 1977.
The tournament no longer enjoys the same stature in the current system but is still among the three highest prize money tournaments on the BWF World Tour. And for any Indian shuttler, the All England is still the Holy Grail.
In fact, Padukone had completed a hat-trick of Grand Prix titles in 1980 when he bagged the Danish and Swedish Open titles before clinching the All England crown, but his other two victories hardly get spoken about in the same breath. In fact, he had defeated his idol Rudi Hartono of Indonesia for the first time in competitive play in the Swedish Open summit clash, and Padukone still cherishes that memory.
Excerpted with permission from The Gopichand Factor by Abhijeet Kulkarni, Westland Sport.
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