Prakash Padukone, who put India on the world badminton map, tells how India has been doing really well in the sport since 2008

India Today once named him among the 60 greatest Indians and that is no exaggeration. Prakash Padukone, who put India on the world badminton map with a string of sterling deeds as a player and later as a coach and administrator, is indeed a living legend.

The former All England champion, the only Indian who rose to World No. 1 in his prime, is an affable, self-effacing gentleman who stays focused on his Padukone Badminton Academy, established in 1994. The academy has produced a growing tribe of champions, including P. Gopichand, Aparna Popat, Anup Sridhar, Arvind Bhat, Trupti Murgunde, Aditi Mutatkar, Sayali Gokhale and Ashwini Ponnappa.

The champ, now 57, shared his thoughts on the game and himself with the Metro Plus.

Padukone is optimistic about the future of Indian badminton. It might have taken two decades for Gopi Chand to replicate his All England championship triumph, but the clutch of stars, now spearheaded by World No. 2 Saina Nehwal, has ushered in a new era.

“I always believed that the talent was there,” he says, “and it needed to be nurtured with exposure and training. And since 2008, when the Government went all the way to support the game for the preparation of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the game has prospered well.”

Padukone cautions that the Badminton Association of India should not depend on government support alone. “BAI should play a proactive role, get more sponsors and let us have very competitive circuit for all and upgrade facilities for the game in the country, especially in moffusil areas,” he says. “To develop and support the talent in smaller places, we need more courts, more shuttles and programmes in place to identify talent.”

Another major challenge is the need to produce more quality coaches. “Our coaches are good, but they need to enhance their knowledge and keep abreast with latest trends on the international level,” he says. The maestro also stresses the need for stars of Indian badminton, to give back. “They have all come through a system and it is imperative they also contribute to the growth of the game in the country, by participating in select domestic events. It is not just enough they play Grand Prix’s and super series events abroad and ignore the game here. They owe to the system that brought them to that level. Their mere presence would attract crowds, ensure better media coverage and bring in more sponsors.”

The new scoring format of badminton makes good viewing for a wide TV audience, but it has also taken its toll, he feels. “For one thing, no player can remain consistent and come out as winner with every outing. Maybe a Lin Dan can, but not all.”

The Padukone Badminton Academy has raised standards. “It has been 18 years since we set off on this venture, beginning with small facilities at Canara Union. It was the first academy which had corporate support, first it was BPL and now we are sponsored by Tata.”

Former national champion Vimal Kumar helps him and oversees the programme. “PPBA just happened and I was not too serious when Vimal Kumar and Vivek Kumar (former state champion) asked me to start an academy, but I slowly came around to that idea and I am really satisfied with the way we are progressing,” says Padukone.

The maestro hung up his racket in 1989, when he was on top. “Having achieved all that I could in the game, I felt it was time to quit and enjoy other aspects of life,” he says. A biography of Padukone, Touch Play, hit the stands in 2006. When he is not attending to work in his academy, Padukone relaxes with music. “I listen to Hindustani classical and Hindi film songs and I often go to plays — that’s a great form of relaxation for me.”

What about movies? Did he ever think daughter Deepika would make it big in Bollywood? Padukone breaks into a smile. “She was a very good model and when she wanted to get into films, neither myself nor my wife Ujjala stood in her way. We always let our children follow their passion, just as my dad (late Ramesh Padukone) did for me. When I wanted to become a badminton player, which certainly had no future in 1960s and 1970s, papa told me to go ahead and give it a shot. I followed his principle and told Deepika, you can follow your dream, but work hard for it, then only success would come.”

He recalls watching her on screen for the first time. “Shah Rukh Khan invited us to the London premiere of Om Shanti Om. I was nervous, wondering how Deepika had fared. But the movie was fabulous and she was just great. Imagine, acting without formal training, or without having a filmi background. We were overwhelmed by the reception she got and I knew she had made it.”

His second daughter, Anisha, is an avid golfer who wants to make a mark in women’s pro golf. “I don’t know much about the technicalities of the game, but I do advise her on other things such as staying focused, developing mental strength etc. and help her out in little things, when she asks for it,” says Padukone.

Padukone looks back on his life with satisfaction. “At this stage of life, I get to spend more time with my family.” There is, however, one wish he nurses. “Saina got us a bronze at the Olympics and I hope soon an Indian player wins the gold at the Olympics, and if it is from my academy, it would be the icing on the cake.”