The decision to sacrifice a seat in a medical college to play badminton, of all things, is unlikely to have gone down well in education-obsessed Thiruvananthapuram of the 1970s. But then again, those were heady days for the sport in India. A 25-year-old Prakash Padukone had just crowned a series of impressive victories by beating Liem Swie King of Indonesia to become the first Indian to win the All England Badminton Championship. "I was a fan of Padukone and he was coming up in a big way so I decided to give up my medical seat," says Vimal Kumar, the soft-spoken, sharp-featured president of the Karnataka Badminton Association and co-founder of the Tata Padukone Badminton Centre. The would-be doctor became instead a badminton star. These days, though, Kumar is more used to the tag of Saina Nehwal's coach, after the Olympic medallist and world No. 2 turned to him for training after a decade at Pullela Gopichand's academy in Hyderabad.
Nehwal's decision to shift to the Padukone Academy in Bengaluru in September 2014, just two weeks before the Asian Games in Incheon, took many by surprise and it was interpreted as the result of a "rift" between her and Gopichand. But the gamble seems to have paid off, with Nehwal winning the China Open Super Series and the India Open Superseries in March, nudging her to a short stay at the top of the world rankings in women's singles.
Gopichand's academy in Hyderabad has come to be regarded as an incubator for champions, with top ranked players like PV Sindhu and Parupalli Kashyap training there, apart from Nehwal. But when the Tata Padukone Badminton Centre was set up in 1994, it was a pioneering private training facility for badminton, as most such centres were run by the national federation. Currently, 40 players, handpicked by scouts from tournaments across the country, train at Padukone's academy, which is supported by the Tatas. "It's not a commercially run establishment," says Kumar. Gopichand too trained here in the mid-'90s, along with other badminton stars like Anup Sridhar and Aparna Popat.
Nehwal seems to be looking fitter, happier and playing with a freer mind since her decision to change coaches, says Popat, who continues to follow the game closely. "There is no doubt that Saina has been playing exceedingly well this year. Earlier, it seemed as if she was unable to take the right decisions at the right time," she says. But Popat also points out that such switches are individual decisions taken by the players. "It is always a risk but it works on intuition. And for Saina it has worked, and worked very quickly."
Kumar is reluctant to take credit for Nehwal's recent performance, saying 90 per cent of the credit for victories goes to the player. "Yes, you have to be dedicated and motivate them but they are the ones who have to go through it; it's their bodies that take the punishment," says the 51-year-old. Outside the centre, located near the Cantonment Railway Station, flutters a banner congratulating Nehwal, scheduled to arrive in India later the same night.
Kumar, dressed in a sky-blue, collared T-shirt and track pants, also plays down any talk of a rift between Nehwal and Gopichand, saying player-coach switches are not an unusual practice. He points out that Gopichand, whom he coached in the mid-90s, also decided to shift from the academy to the Sports Authority of India after five years. "He felt he needed a change and so he moved out, and that's when he won the All England Championship. A top sportsperson is always looking at ways to improve himself," he says. Nehwal, he says, felt her game was stagnating and was going through a lean phase after the Olympics, which is why she felt she needed a change. "Sometimes, if people get a slightly different environment, they perform better, just like in the corporate field. And I wouldn't want to take anything away from Gopi or Arif, her first coach," he says.
One of the reasons Nehwal chose to shift to Padukone's academy, she told journalists earlier, was that Gopichand seemed constrained in the amount of time he could devote to her. "She was feeling stagnated in Hyderabad. And with 149 players in his academy, the amount of individual attention Gopichand would have been able to give would have been limited," says TS Sudhir, journalist and author of An Inspirational Biography: Saina Nehwal. But Nehwal has maintained that the decision was taken in consultation with Gopichand and Kumar, which the latter asserts. On his part, Gopichand had said it was important for players to be in the right frame of mind and that he hoped she would win many more medals. Gopichand, currently in Singapore for the Singapore Open, and Nehwal did not respond to calls or messages for this report.
The difference in Kumar's coaching methods, he feels, might lie in the fact that he believes players at Nehwal's level need to take decisions independently rather than be spoon-fed. "I don't believe in too much regimentation, maybe because of the years I spent playing in England. There, athletes have to think for themselves and that's what I'm encouraging Saina to do," he says. "Saina has to perform on her own, whether I'm there or not. Even in the future, she should not depend on me; she has to become like a professional tennis player," Kumar adds.
This is in contrast to the system in China and most other Asian countries, where everything is strictly controlled and which consequentially produces players without strong personalities, unlike in tennis. "In tennis, you talk about Roger Federer, John McEnroe and Serena Williams, not Roger Federer of Switzerland or Serena Williams of the US," he says.
This is an extension of his own life philosophy when he was playing for India. He had no qualms about taking on the badminton federation because he thought it controlled the players too much. The final straw came in 1983, when the association did not submit his name for the French Open despite the fact that he was ranked No.2 in India. He went ahead on his own, played and won, while the other Indian players who were part of the official contingent lost. When he came back, he was rewarded with a show-cause notice for playing at his own cost. "So I left for England and stayed there for 10 years, just playing badminton. I played for Surrey and for India," he says. He returned to India after the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and set up the academy with Padukone in 1994. Former national champion Popat, who was coached by him, avers: "He has always been very vocal about what he believes in and has fought for the welfare of the players. He has never been one to mince words."
Being on the other side as administrator and coach, Kumar says he realises it's not easy to change systems because there are not enough like-minded people. Yet, he asserts that things have improved tremendously for badminton in the country from the days he was playing. About Nehwal, he adds, "Players like her are very special - she is very talented, has a strong mind and is willing to work for her goals. She is an asset to the country, so we have to do whatever we can for her." Sudhir says it also appears as if Nehwal wants to prove she is the best player the country has produced and that she can do it on her own. If that is the case, Kumar might have come in at the right time.