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This is the golden period of Indian badminton: Prakash Padukone

Prakash Padukone   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

Prakash Padukone fits the legend’s description perfectly. A remarkable touch artist, Padukone became the first Indian to win the men’s singles title at the prestigious All England Championships in 1980 and was declared World No. 1 that year. He won the Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1979 and the World Cup in 1981.

He established the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy 21 years ago in order to train budding talent. The PPBA has produced a number of champions. Presently, he is the co-founder along with another champion sportsperson, Geet Sethi, of sports NGO Olympic Gold Quest, which supports promising and ambitious sportspersons. He is married to Ujjala and his two daughters are famous too - Deepika is a Bollywood actor and Anisha a promising golfer. Padukone spoke to The Hindu during the launch of the Tata Open International Challenge at the Cooch Behar Room, Cricket Club of India.

Excerpts:

Saina Nehwal is World No. 2, PV Sindhu is 12, and then there are half a dozen men’s players in the top 50, like K. Srikanth (9), P. Kashyap (14), HS Prannoy (20), Ajay Jayaram (23), Sai Praneeth (35) and Gurusaidutt (42). Would you say 2015 has been the best year for Indian badminton?

This is the golden period of Indian badminton. I don’t think there has been any other time better than this. Historically, if you see, and this applies to most other sports, India had just one player at the top level at a particular point in time. Earlier, it was Nandu Natekar, followed by Suresh Goel, myself, Syed Modi and then Gopichand. This is the first time, maybe in the last five years, starting with the Commonwealth Games in 2010, that a batch of players are doing well; a good sign for the growth of the game. It shows the popularity of the game and depth of talent in the country, especially in men’s singles. This trend should continue; the players have to work hard.

Saina becoming the World No. 1 has in a way convinced the other Indian players that if she can do it, they can too. She has given them belief. There is enough support these days for talented sportspersons practising an Olympic sport. There are various foundations and government schemes offering help. It’s not like what it used to be 10 years ago. So, there is lot of sponsorship support available. It’s up to the players to work hard now. There are platforms for them to excel. The onus is more on the players, especially if they are talented; be it any sport — shooting, wrestling or boxing. If someone is talented, support is always bound to come. I hope the players realise this, stay focused, sincere and show a lot of patience. One cannot succeed overnight. All the good things are there now.

Have the ranked players progressed according to your expectations or could they have done better?

They have done whatever they are capable of, and to their potential. I want them to be a little more consistent, like Saina and Sindhu. They do well in one or two tournaments and lose in the first round in the next three; this is not an ideal situation. One cannot win every single tournament though — even a Lin Dan or Chen Long cannot do it. They are capable of lifting their performance, improving their ranking and remaining there for a longer period of time. Once you are in the top 10, you can stay there if you play well. Saina and Sindhu have proven it.

With so many Chinese players around, it’s going to be tough for the men though.

It’s going to be extremely difficult. But they should have the belief, and plan their schedule in such a way that they are in peak form at most times. They should also plan their rest and recovery to avoid injuries. These are all part of a professional’s career. So, they have to be focused and very selective in playing tournaments.

Saina’s success should have set off a wave of interest, but that has not happened.

There are a lot of youngsters, but I don’t see the same level of potential in them as Saina and Sindhu. They don’t lack in technique; it’s more on the physical side of it. Sindhu has the height and is physically strong. So, young girls have to work on their fitness and stamina. If they can do this, there are better chances of them succeeding at the highest level.

How should Saina prepare for Rio?

She should have more or less decided the tournaments she will play next year. It depends on each individual; the coach and the player have to decide. They have to make sure that they get enough rest between tournaments, recovery time and then start training again — ideally a period of three to four weeks’ rest if possible. The key will be to remain injury-free leading up to the Olympics, and also try to reach their peak during that week. How they do it is between the player and coach. It should not be a case of playing too much or too less.

She has all the support systems in place; maybe it’s for her to decide the milestones she wants to reach

She should aim for the Olympic gold; she is capable because she has beaten all the top players in the world. It’s just a question of dealing with pressure in that particular week. I think the Olympics is all about pressure. It’s not a question of if you are a good or bad player, or physically in good shape or not. It’s more about mental strength. Whoever is capable of dealing with all these things will succeed. It’s important for Saina to be relaxed, not put additional pressure on herself thinking it’s a once-in-four-years event, that she has to win and hence focus too much on winning. She has to consider the Olympics as any other tournament. I do not know if that’s the right way, but I would do it that way if I was in her position or if I was coaching her.

Have you noticed any change in her playing style after she moved from Hyderabad to Bangalore to train with Vimal Kumar?

She is playing a lot better, tactically; playing more at the net. Her dribbles have improved. There are more variations. Vimal is working one-on-one with here and there will be a difference. They train for five to six hours (a day). The change is bound to happen.

What are your expectations from the Indian players across all categories at Rio?

All of them have chances, but it’s difficult to predict. It all depends on how they prepare. As I said, it’s important to reach their peak during that Olympic week. The chances (of a podium finish) are better in the men’s and women’s singles.

There are a few junior players in the BWF ranking list like Siril Verma, Chirag Sen and Shivani Gadde. Good signs?

There are not many junior tournaments for boys and girls. It (rankings) doesn’t give the right reflection of their potential. But yes, we do have some bright talent. Siril Verma recently reached the World Championship final. There are others in the boys’ group, but moving from the junior rank to the senior will be a big step. They are on top in the junior tournaments, but you have to start afresh when you enter the senior ranks at the age of 18 or 19.

Barring Lee Chong Wei (Hyderabad Hunters), the cream of badminton is missing from the Premier Badminton League. Even Carolina Marin, who played two years ago, is not present.

The league has been postponed so often that the players were not sure if it was going to happen. Players have other commitments — the Europeans and some Asians plan their tournaments well in advance. 2016 is an Olympic year, and their priorities are different. The top players would have planned their schedule a year ago.

Carolina Marin has been declared the best female player of the year by BWF, while Chen Long retained the honour in the men’s section. Your views?

Carolina had her ups and downs, but the difference was that she won the two major events of the year — the All England and World Championships. She must be doing something right to peak well during the most important tournaments. Saina should aim for this and try to win major events.

The All England has a special place for all players, even though there are other events like the Grands Prix and Super Series.

It’s one of the oldest tournaments, equivalent to Wimbledon in tennis. There is the French Open, US Open and Australian Open, but Wimbledon has its own charm; similarly, the All England in March. It’s a very well organised event; it’s got history. Even today, any player would dream of winning the title at least once.

During an Olympic year, a gold medal or All England title?

I think definitely the Olympics.

India has two well-known players running successful academies — in Bengaluru, the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy has been in existence for 21 years and in Hyderabad, by Pullela Gopichand. Obviously, two is too small and inadequate for a country like India.

It is not enough. I was just mentioning this to the Tata group, which is sponsoring the Tata Open International Challenge. We need to have academies in every State, at least 30, in order to compete with China. We should make a start with four or five zonal academies. It’s not the job of the private enterprise, instead the federations, National and State, should do this. They need to identify these centres and good coaches. It’s important to identify the right people. The talent we have at PPBA are all from different places in the country. Actually, the local coaches are producing them. We are ready to support any such initiative from the federation and association. We will give them the names of coaches who are doing a good job, provide young players with racquets and also the framework for running an academy. We cannot be running all academies together. The players can shift to Bengaluru or Hyderabad at the right time.

Who is your all-time favourite badminton player?

Rudy Hartono. He was a complete player. He hardly had any weakness. He’s the equivalent of tennis’ Roger Federer. Rudy is the best player I have seen.

What about Deepika’s acting? Do you discuss it with her?

I think she is improving. What can I talk to her about acting! I just give her my opinion. I can see that she is getting better. She has done different kinds of roles. That’s very heartening for us. From 2013, she has done serious and comedy roles and excelled in both. So, it’s difficult to compare.

Which is the film you have seen many times over?

I think Chennai Express!

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