Home > mint-lounge > features > The Saina Nehwal effect: shuttlecock storm

Kaustubh Rawat leaps like he’s got giant springs for feet, his arms reaching up and out as he hits the incoming shuttle with a whipped thwack that sends it stinging back across the net. Rawat lands lightly on his feet inside the training court in the sleek, spacious Siri Fort Badminton Stadium in New Delhi. A legacy of the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG), the stadium is now the regular venue for India’s top international competition, the Yonex-Sunrise India Open Super Series.

The competition courts are open to the public for an hourly fee when tournaments are not on, and the more compact set-up of warm-up courts is used through the year by the MV Bisht Badminton Academy. Run by former national champion and international player Madhumita Bisht and her husband and former player Vikram Bisht, the academy began operations barely a year ago, but is already so packed—120 young, talented players train here—that the coaches have a tough time managing the workload.

Children seeking admission are turned away on a regular basis.

Delhi’s Kaustubh Rawat, 14, is one of the many players hoping to benefit from badminton’s newfound popularity. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Delhi’s Kaustubh Rawat, 14, is one of the many players hoping to benefit from badminton’s newfound popularity. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Rawat knows he is lucky he got in. He also knows he belongs here, in an elite training structure. The lean and athletic 14-year-old left his home in the small city of Kashipur, near Nainital in Uttarakhand, ayear back just to come here to train. In August 2012, a few months after joining the school, he won the Delhi state championship in the under-15 category. The national championship is thenext target. “I want to make my career in badminton," Rawat says. “I’m absolutely clear about it. That’s why I am here. All my focus is on the game." Rawat did not have to seek admission—one of the coaches at the academy spotted him at a school tournament and asked him to relocate to Delhi and join the state-of-the-art facility. His parents agreed—“because they’ve been seeing Saina Nehwal for some time now," Rawat says.

The MV Bisht Badminton Academy has almost everything Rawat needs to take his game to the next level—six international standard courts, six experienced and ambitious coaches and a physical trainer.

What’s better, the academy is not unique—it’s just one of the many privately run but government-supported badminton training centres that have cropped up across the country in the last five years. Delhi itself has four that have come up since 2011, including the United Shuttlers Badminton Academy run by Ajay and Manjusha Kanwar, both former internationals. With 180 students and eight coaches (three of whom are former internationals), and an affiliation with the country’s premier training centre, the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, the Kanwars too are struggling to cope with the demand.

“There is no other sport apart from cricket that has the kind of infrastructure and coaching that badminton gets," says Madhumita, who is a two-time Olympian, Asian and Commonwealth Games medallist, and holds the record of 28 national titles. “And the kind of exposure players are getting! In five years, we can be at a level we have never dreamed of."

If India’s core group of senior players get to train through the year at the globally acclaimed Gopichand academy, the best junior players now train at the Babu Banarasi Das Badminton Academy in Lucknow, a massive complex dedicated to the sport and operational since 2008, under Indonesian coach Hendra Mulyono.

“We are very close to doing something big, something great, with badminton," Gopi Chand, the former All-England champion and India’s chief coach, says. “But this last step is the toughest."

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A training session at the MV Bisht Academy in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

There are a string of interconnected reasons that have led to this badminton resurgence, though the nucleus of it remains Nehwal and her coach Gopi Chand.

Nehwal’s success on the international stage, beginning with her highly televised march to the 2008 Olympics quarter-final, triggered a domino effect—TV coverage for the sport increased in India, generating wide public interest, which in turn sparked investments and sponsorships for promising players and tournaments. Badminton was suddenly the sport of choice for thousands of young athletes in Mumbai, Pune, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Former players responded by opening academies or upgrading existing ones.

“The core reason we are producing so many good players is because of private centres," says Dinesh Khanna, one of the two government observers for the sport. “Why do Gopi or Prakash (Padukone) work so hard for their academies? Because it’s their baby, it’s their labour of love. If they have to evolve, upgrade or learn from their mistakes, they can do it without seeking permission from anyone, and they can do it immediately."

Khanna is also the first Indian player to have won an international medal in badminton—he grabbed the bronze at the 1966 Commonwealth Games, and now runs a grass-roots-level academy at the Siri Fort Sports Complex in Delhi.

The contrast is stark. “If you were a SAI (Sports Authority of India) centre," Khanna says, “and a light went out of order, you might have to write to five different departments and wait for a week before it is replaced."

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Madhumita Bisht teaching the game at her academy. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

A new league

But it’s not all neglect and ineptitude from the government and Badminton Association of India (BAI). In fact, for a change, they are part of the transformation, chiefly by getting out of the way. Since 2009, the Gopichand academy is being used as the training centre for the Indian team, the only Olympic sport for which national camps are not held at SAI centres. The government largesse for badminton has seen significant jumps. The funding for players to compete in international tournaments went up from a meagre 2 crore to 6 crore in 2008 with the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games in mind. This was pushed up to 8 crore in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics and increased again to 12.2 crore post-Olympics.

“The average 100 days a year of national camp was increased to 305 days a year of camps and international tournaments," Khanna says. “What is really amazing, that this budget and time frame has not been reduced after the CWG. Effectively, the international players are now professionals, they have to do nothing else but play the game."

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Prakash Padukone. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

“I don’t think the India Open has ever seen so many spectators," Gopi Chand said after the tournament. “There were big crowds even on qualifying days. I met people who had travelled from other parts of India just for the tournament.

Like Vasanth Bharathi, a 41-year-old IT manager from Chennai who brought his entire family—wife and two daughters—and watched the full tournament.

BAI also managed to grab the hosting rights for the tier 1 2014 Thomas Cup and Uber Cup, badminton’s biggest tournaments after the World Championships, for the first time.

Badminton World Federation secretary general Thomas Lund, who flew to New Delhi for the India Open, calls the development of the game in India “amazing". “Our statistics tell us that badminton is the third most watched sport on TV here (after cricket and football)," Lund says. “There has been rapid development, and a lot of it is connected to Saina Nehwal’s popularity."

Sporty Solutionz will also launch an ambitious new badminton league in August. The Indian Badminton League, or IBL, hopes to shake up the experience of watching the game, much like the Indian Premier League (IPL) did with cricket, by injecting unprecedented amounts of money, a little bit of Bollywood shine, and city-based team loyalties. The 18-day league will see six city franchise teams, each with 11 players (four of whom can be foreigners), playing each other in singles, doubles, and mixed-doubles fixtures across cities, with the final in Mumbai. The $1 million (around 57 crore) prize fund is the largest ever offered in the sport.

The average 100 days a year of national camp was increased to 305 days a year of camps and international tournaments, and what is really amazing, that this budget and time frame has not been reduced after the commonwealth games. Effectively, the international players are now professionals, they have to do nothing else but play the game.

Hyderabad, Mumbai, Lucknow, Pune, Delhi and Bangalore will have teams, and the franchise owners of all six were decided through a bidding process in January. The names of the owners are yet to be officially disclosed. The names of the sponsors haven’t been made public either, though Kumar says that close to 180 crore has been raised for the league from 18 different sponsors. “We’ve got a high-profile TV partner as well," Kumar says, “and what I can say right now is that it is the biggest media rights sold for a sport, after cricket." The IBL will also be broadcast in Japan and South-East Asia, parts of Europe and North America.

“Frankly we are looking at Asia," Kumar says. “This is not just about Indian cities, we are in talks with the national associations of the 12 top badminton-playing countries to promote the league."

Badminton is popular in China, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia, where most of the world’s top players come from, and which promise vast, untapped markets.

“It really is like cricket—before the IPL started, Australia, South Africa, they were the big performers on the field, but the game wasn’t growing there," Kumar says. “Similarly, the game might be dominated by China and Malaysia, but the market for it is growing faster in India. With all due respect, we’ve waited for these countries to take the lead and make the game a commercial success, and now we are ready to take the initiative."

The IBL, though, has been postponed once this year, and there is talk that potential sponsors and team owners are dithering because they believe that beyond Nehwal, badminton does not have enough marketing potential.

Match point

Time is on India’s side, for the moment. China dominates the game on the world stage, but for most other countries, there has been a downward slide.

“Some of the best male players like Taufik Hidayat (Indonesia) or Lin Dan (China) are retiring or not playing," Vikram says. “Indonesia, Malaysia, Denmark, they are not the powers they used to be. The race is now between Thailand and us to take these places. The game is wide open."

Kashyap says the opportunity has to be seized quickly. “We have only two world-class training centres, and we need at least two-three more right now. The SAI centres don’t have coaches or systems for international-level players, and a new academy, even if it’s the best in the world, will need five-six years to start showing results."

The lack of coaches is a problem acknowledged across the board.

“Coaching should be a well-paid job," says Padukone, the 1980 All England Champion whose 18-year-old centre was the first world-class private academy in India. “And we’ve never thought of coaching the coaches."

The first step to rectify that was taken this year when BAI organized a month-long skills-upgradation programme for coaches.

Back at the Bisht academy, Rawat’s session comes to an end. He looks exhausted and happy. “If I don’t come for training, my day feels boring and pointless," he says. “I was at the India Open this year watching the games. The crowds were so loud, it was fantastic. Maybe in a few years I’ll be on the court playing, trying to shut off the noise of the crowd."

Pavitra Jayaraman contributed to this story.

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Racquet rewind

Back then, if you didn’t have shuttlecocks, you played handball. No coaches? You taught yourself.

Walk into just about any badminton training facility across the country, and one thing is evident: This is not the usual Indian story of a struggling sport trying to make do with the bare minimum. Children as young as 8 wield top-of-the-line rackets, wear expensive speciality shoes, and play with imported shuttlecocks on well-lit, well-laid courts. Even a decade back, this would have been unthinkable.

Dinesh Khanna, who won a bronze at the 1966 Commonwealth Games (CWG), says the training regimen during his time was “primitive". “It would be a struggle to get a month’s practice before something like the CWG," he says. Almost two decades later, Prakash Padukone fared no better. “When I came in, you learnt on your own," he says. “It was trial and error. Hardly any coaches, no TV, no Internet. Even if I wanted to improve, there was no way."

How about jumping two more decades? Same news.

“All my life, my main fight was always with facilities, not opponents," says Pullela Gopi Chand, who won the All England Championship in 2001. “No electricity on court, court is closed for no reason, shuttlecocks are missing, coaches are missing, food’s not there, there’s no gym."

All my life, my main fight was always with facilities, not opponents no electricity on court, court is closed for no reason, shuttlecocks are missing, coaches are missing, food’s not there, there’s no gym.

“We were so short of shuttlecocks at the national camp that we trained for reflexes playing handball," says Vikram Bisht, Madhumita’s husband and a former national player. “We got so good at handball that none of the other national teams—basketball, hockey, volleyball, boxing—could beat us."

From 1984-90, Madhumita was unbeaten at the National Championships (in badminton).

She was also part of the coaching staff for the national team for the 2012 Olympics. “We are so professional now that the entire core group trained with the expensive shuttlecock used for the Olympics itself—and that’s 300-400 shuttlecocks being used a day," she says. “All the players get to play two-three international tournaments a month, and have camps running through the year. It’s perfect." Also different from when she went to Barcelona. “Oh it was a great adventure, a thriller," she laughs.

The top players then got funding to play two international tournaments a year. “Two a year! How could you ever get enough ranking points to play in the Olympics?" Madhumita says. So she and her husband went on a fund-raising drive. A Union minister gave them plane tickets, a bank covered some costs, the Indian Railways, for whom Bisht worked, provided more. In 1992, the Olympic year, Madhumita managed to play three international tournaments in Asia, and qualified for
the Games.

“Every tournament, I went alone," she says. “I had no idea what I was doing, where I would stay, what I would eat. I didn’t speak the language. It was incredible. Sometimes I feel sad that players now don’t get to experience these things because everything is spoon-fed to them."

But there are parts of her experience she would not wish on players.

At the 1992 Korea Open, she reached the quarter-finals, but had a pre-booked return flight on the night of her match. “I didn’t know what to do," she says. “I had no money, no Internet, no phone, didn’t know anyone in the city who could help me change the booking."

So she went to the stadium with all her luggage.

“I went to play as if I’m going to lose."

She lost 11-8, 11-8, despite leading in both games, and then made her way to the airport. “When I think of it now, I still feel like crying."

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B Sai Praneeth. Photo: Li Ziheng/AFP

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Five for the future

These promising players are likely to keep our badminton journey on course.

1. B Sai Praneeth, 21

One of India’s top junior players and a bronze medallist at the 2010 World Junior Badminton Championships, Praneeth’s first few outings at the senior level have been encouraging.

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HS Prannoy. Photo: Arijit Sen/Mint

Ranked 55 in the world, he is backed by the Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit organization that helps athletes with funds and expertise.

2. HS Prannoy, 20

He had a dream run till the quarter-finals of the 2013 India Open, beating Indonesia’s Taufik Hidayat en route, and losing only to world No.1 Lee Chong Wei.

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K Srikanth

A year at the senior level, he is already ranked at 64.

3. K Srikanth, 20

He defeated world No.6 Danish player Jan O. Jorgensen at the 2013 India Open, and reached the semi-finals of the Syed Modi International Grand Prix Gold in December.

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Ruthvika Shivani

4. Ruthvika Shivani, 16

She has won every single age-group tournament in India starting from the under-13 level.

A silver medallist at the Li Ning Youth International Tournament in China in 2010 and the Badminton Asia Confederation Youth U15 and U17 Championships in Japan in 2011.

The former Padukone protégé started playing senior tournaments late last year.

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Lakshya Sen. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

5. Lakshya Sen, 12

He swept the national under-13 tournaments when he was just 10, and is already on the Olympic Gold Quest’s roster as a prospect for the 2020 Olympics.

He gets to play international tournaments through the year, and wins regularly.

His training partner at the Prakash Padukone Academy, Rahul Bhardwaj B.M., is regarded as equally talented.

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