Surreal. Whirlwind. Overwhelming. Perhaps these would be the easy throwaway words if I think of the past couple of months. Yet truth be told, I would be lying if I said I didn’t see any of it coming – the groundwork was already laid, the hard work already undertaken and an infectious spirit and hunger for wins hung heavy in the air around Indian badminton – I knew I had to ride that wave, up my strengths, tackle my weaknesses and voila – things would fall into place.
With a streak of quarterfinals, the occasional staving off of seasoned champions like Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, Tokyo bronze medallist Anthony Ginting, World No. 4 Chou Tien Chen, a trio of semi-finals, a runners-up finish, and an agonising loss in the Indonesia Open semi-finals against China’s Zhao Jun Peng in mid-June and the imminent awareness that I won’t be playing in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, a strange bittersweet emotion fills me.
After having played badminton at an elite level for more than a decade, I know the price that needs to be paid and I know that I cannot control everything. The Commonwealth Games are always special and especially after missing out on an individual medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Games, the hunger to add one to the cabinet was raging more than ever, given the form I have been enjoying – yet I know I should only focus on the controllable and therefore I have made my peace with missing out on the Games this time.
With Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen present in the squad for singles, I’m sure that India will do well – they are in fine form, especially Srikanth, who is showing consistency like the older days, it’s wonderfully inspiring.
For me, with the Commonwealth Games off the radar, I now focus on the positives – and in the last few months, there have been one too many to be grateful for – including my return into the BWF Top 20 rankings.
The hectic badminton calendar has anyway been way too taxing – with the constant travel, the perpetual pressure to deliver, and win medals from every tournament, it takes a lot of toll on the mind and the body – so even if I’m missing out on the Games, I know that this cloud has a silver lining to it too – I can take rest, rejuvenate, recover and prepare for the World Championships slated for August-end.
In our frenzy to play one tournament after the another, the love for the game somewhere slips away – and that is a terrible feeling. I’ve learnt this the hard way. Instead of focussing on the results, letting your love for the sport guide you in points, is something that we take a while to realise.
It’s easy to lose the love too – the pressure from sponsors, limited as they are for Indian badminton still, the pressure of the ranking system, and your own personal expectations – all of it can make you miss the fun of playing itself and I’ve worked consciously on that so that I can retain my love for the sport, even at 30, the hunger is more than ever.
A Thomas Cup hero’s confession
Flashback to a couple of months, I knew the power of the eyes looking at me, watching my every twitch, the strain of my muscles, my arms tensed – at ready, my own eyes keen and sharp, and my body alert, raring to go – I knew just how much banked on my every shot, the littlest of my movements – a whole nation’s chance to create history at the Thomas Cup in the semi-finals against Denmark.
The nerves were natural, the pressure was tremendous, yet the odd sense of calm I have spent months trying to perfect, the long weeks of facing my demons, fighting my battles, working on my mental conditioning, steeling my nerves – all of it came to fore as I stood against Rasmus Gemke of Denmark in the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup in a do-or-die match. I don’t remember being so focussed in a match as I was in that, in recent times – I still get goosebumps thinking of it.
A win would guarantee India a first-time place in the Thomas Cup finals for the first time in 73 years – but I was no stranger to pressure, I’ve known my way around it. Over the last few months, I have worked relentlessly on focussing on the game and not the end result and taking it every point at a time – and the change in perspectives has been a welcome boost.
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And then history happened – India, spurred on by a maniacal frenzy to go out there and conquer, did the once-seemingly impossible deed – we lifted the Thomas Cup title, a well-balanced team with the right mix of young and old blood contributing to the victory, etching India’s name in the pages of badminton history indelibly.
Yet, if I have to be honest, the Thomas Cup victory for India – came and went, like a short-lived stupor.
Yes, many were quick to compare it to the 1983 cricket World Cup victory by Kapil Dev & Co. but was the Thomas Cup successful in bringing about the change that the cricket win did in 1983?
Sadly not. Sans being a confidence-booster and inspiration-booster for Indians, not too many lasting ripples happened because of the win. A lot more remains to be done.
Unlike cricket which is the most-followed sport, badminton is the most-played sport in this county but the proportion of funds, sponsorships and recognition coming in for the same, is incredibly stark – badminton doesn’t even get 5% of what cricket tends to get.
I’ve personally had many struggles in finding the right sponsors, especially during the World Championships in Huelva last year. It was a particularly difficult time for me and if not for certain well-wishers and the constant support of GoSports, I wouldn’t have been able to reach where I am today. A lot of support needs to come in for badminton, especially from corporates, otherwise, how are we doing justice to these epic victories – will they just come and go? How else are we to grow this game?
While this is still an uphill battle, I know sports is a cruel place, making you be hard on yourself. We often forget in this grind that we are humans first, sportspersons later. I’ve stopped setting targets for myself because once we don’t reach them, it becomes disappointing for us – for now, I’d like to play finals more consistently. It’s better to focus on the game instead and never lose hope and stop knocking on doors – because, from what I’ve learnt, injury, fitness and sponsorship woes later, that if you do keep at it, and work hard, the doors will open for you – you just have to keep believing.
(As told to Sohinee Basu)