Prakash Padukone changed the way Indians looked at badminton. One of the first world-beaters India produced, Padukone was a man who saw things differently. It was this unique perspective that led him to forego a cushy bank job in the 80s and shift his training base to the cold environs of Denmark for six years as he pursued excellence with a racquet in hand.
On Tuesday, Padukone, who started Padukone Sports Management (PSM) two decades ago, was in Mumbai to launch a badminton coaching program at Worli's NSCI. On the sidelines of the event, he spoke to a select group of journalists, offering his perspective on issues in Indian badminton. Excerpts:
Women's singles: The wide gap after Saina and Sindhu
Indian shuttlers have won medals at three successive Olympics, with Saina Nehwal's bronze at London 2012 being topped by PV Sindhu winning silver at Rio 2016 and bronze at the deferred Tokyo Olympics.
But the question of who takes over the baton from Sindhu in women's singles is one that Indian badminton has currently no answers for, with Saina and Sindhu miles ahead of the rest of their compatriots.
On being asked what he thought was the reason for this wide gap, Padukone said: "The standard was generally very low. But Saina and Sindhu took the game to a different level altogether. If these two were not there, we probably would have still been happy. But they have raised the bar so high, that it's impossible for others."
Padukone pointed out that Saina and Sindhu's physical prowess set them apart from other women's shuttlers from India, who, he said, were not too far behind the Olympic medallist duo in terms of technical abilities.
"Both of them are very fit, in terms of speed and fitness or strength and power or in terms of endurance. None of the other women's singles players from India have this. Probably, the other players currently playing are on par with Sindhu and Saina technically. By technically, I mean stroke-wise. But they lack physically. Generally, Indian women's players are not strong physically. Maybe it's because of diet, or maybe because of the way we are built. Some players are quite short. Sindhu had an advantage given her height. So, we need to pick, at a very young age, players who have these physical attributes," said Padukone.
Padukone, the first shuttler from India to win an All England title, said that if he was picking youngsters to groom into future superstars, he would choose players who are strong physically, rather than technically sound.
"I would pick players who are strong, fit, and fast. It's easier to train such players. If you're technically sound, meaning you can play good strokes, but are not physically strong you can only take them up to a certain level. After that it will be difficult, because it's become a physical game now. You cannot compensate that with your technical skills."
Big-game Sindhu must focus on All England
Sindhu, particularly, has shown a rare trait among Indian athletes: the ability to peak at big tournaments. She has five World Championship medals to go with her two Olympic titles. But victory at the All England Championships, considered as prestigious as the Wimbledon in tennis, has eluded her.
"If I was in Sindhu's place, I would prioritise winning the All England title. That's the one title missing from her cabinet. Otherwise, she's won everything. That's the title she should aim for and work backwards. You know the month in which it is held (March), so she should discuss with her coach which tournaments she should play if she has to win the title there. She should figure out if she wants two or three weeks rest before All England and plan her schedule accordingly," he said.
Advice to Lakshya Sen: Don't be satisfied
While no singles player has caught the imagination of the country so far in the women's side, Lakshya Sen has been touted as Indian badminton's next big thing ever since his exploits in the junior circuit.
"He's doing well, but he should not be satisfied. He's got a long way to go since he's young. He's in the 20s in world rankings (World No 25), but rankings doesn't really give the full picture," cautioned Padukone.
Focus on titles, not ranking
Padukone was the first shuttler from India to become the World No 1. But his advice to Indians is simple: don't get caught up with the fickle nature of rankings. On being asked what his advice to Lakshya would be, Padukone said: "Choose the right tournaments. He should have a mix of tournaments and recovery. Too much importance should not be given to rankings. For a week if your ranking goes down from 10 to 20 and from 20 to 30, let it be, it really doesn't matter. Do well in one tournament, you will get your rankings back. The focus should be on winning tournaments rather than retaining your rankings.
"That's the major difference I find between when we were playing and now. When we played, every time we entered a competition, we wanted to win a tournament. Of course, those days weekly rankings did not exist. But even if I was playing now, I would focus on winning tournaments, the big events, and not worry too much about whether I am No 10 in the world or No 20. If you win an All England, if you win a World Championships or an Olympic medal, people will remember that much more than they will remember that you were a World No 1 for a few weeks. The schedule of a player should revolve around trying to peak for the important tournaments. In the bargain if your ranking goes down, it's all right. I'm not saying rankings are not important. But the way the current lot of players think, it feels rankings are the only thing. They're not worried about anything else."
'Learn from BCCI'
Only two players from India have won the prestigious All England title to date, with Pullela Gopichand repeating Padukone's feat two decades later. And while Gopichand has gone on to become the chief national coach of the Indian badminton team, Padukone prefers to focus on what he calls the 'bottom of the pyramid'.
"In the pyramid of Indian badminton, I'm trying to focus on the bottom: grassroots. I want to spread the game wide," he said.
With PSM, his goal is to try and set up more centres across India which will help popularise the game.
"Going forward want to see how I can use technology for grassroot-level coaching, coach assessment and player assessment," he said. "Coach education program is another important aspect of what we want to do. Coach education needs a lot of importance. In a lot of sports, national federations are not paying attention to that. Everybody does coaching, but it's not organised. There has to be proper curriculum, certification for coaches. In a small way, I want to set the example. Very few sports like cricket in Indian currently have grades for coaching. In badminton there's none whatsoever at least in India. I've written to the Badminton Association of India also that they should start certifying coaches and bring some standardisation in coaching.
"Earlier there were people at BAI who were not doing anything and not letting others do anything. But now there's a much more player-friendly approach. But what more can be done? I think they need to streamline the administration a little bit. They need to bring in professionals, who have the vision. There are still honorary secretaries and such positions. This won't work. It has to be like BCCI, where people are focusing on their job full-time and not doing anything else. I don't think we have even one professional who is focussing full-time on the sport in the administration."