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The Rediff Interview/Aparna Popat
'I have to believe that I can'
July 14, 2004
For Aparna Popat, life has come a full circle. In February 2000, the young badminton player tested positive for the forbidden substance phenylpropanolamine. She was banned for a year for something she still believes was not her fault. Her world ranking then was 23, and in the ensuing years it plummeted to around 80, which, on the world stage, is a huge drop.
Mentally, it was a big setback for India's No.1 shuttler. But she took the reverse in her stride and decided that the only way to silence all those who thought she was a drug cheat was to return from the ban an even better player. Today, her world ranking is back at 23 and she is the only Indian to qualify for the women's singles at the Athens Olympics.
Ashish Magotra spoke with the 26-year-old, who is training at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bangalore, to find out about her preparations for Games and the gloomy period that followed her ban.
During your time away from the game did it ever get to a point where you wanted to quit playing?
It was terrible. First of all, everyone knew I was not well. They knew that I had taken medicines. I even wrote it on the form before the dope test. I mean the only thing that came to my mind was that it was just not fair. Why did it happen to me?
People knew I was not well. I was so angry. It took me a lot of time just to get rid of all the negative feelings. I knew I had to be strong because everyone around me was upset. If I had broken down, they too would have.
After having done well for the country it hurt when people started suddenly doubting me. I was totally shattered. The first few times I stepped onto the court, I just couldn't take it. I went up to Prakash Padukone [1980 All-England and 1981 World champion] and told him, 'I just can't do this'. But he told me that the only way back is to return on court and play.
So when you look back at what happened, what is the biggest lesson you have learnt?
Never fall ill; never take any medicine during a tournament that is not certified by the doctors and, on the whole, be extremely careful. I mean, earlier I had been dope tested so many times during my career. It was all almost a joke for me. But now I am very careful.
You have been at the Sports Authority of India for almost three years. Has your game improved during this time?
I shifted from Bombay to Bangalore when I was 16 to join the Padukone Academy. Back then I was mainly a touch player and I used to rarely ever smash. But now I have a greater understanding of my game. I know the angles, my footwork is better, my fitness has improved and, as a result, I get under the shuttle a lot more and can play more strokes. I am stronger and can smash, but use it very sparingly. I rely more on placements and subtle touches.
A few weeks back you said you are aiming for the Olympic gold. Realistically, do you think you can match up to the Chinese?
I have been playing well against Chinese players ranked between 10 and 15 in the world. I take the score to something like 11-8, 11-7. That is quite close. At this point I am concentrating on getting into the top 15 in the world. Confidence is a key factor against the Chinese and as it is the key to beating anyone. I have to believe that I can.
The Chinese are quick; their speed and fitness is amazing. They have sound technique too. But, at the end of the day, it is just about having one good day. One good tournament and anything can happen.
Do you have access to all the technology you might need to be the best player you can possibly?
Well, I do have a video camera available that I can carry for tournaments. But it is too much of a bother. I used it for a few tournaments, but to set it up yourself and then make sure it's alright is too distracting. There are other things that we could use, but they are not available at all times.
You are like the lone ranger among women badminton players in India. How do you cope with the pressure?
I guess being alone makes you more responsible; makes you work harder. It's like getting a whiff of being a winner. Then you will do anything to get to the top and stay there.
Sometimes all the traveling gets a little bit tedious. I mean I love playing. While a tournament is going on you have your schedule to stick to, but sometimes you lose early and that's when it gets really boring. But I guess it's okay.
I love myself; I love being on my own; I can stay alone. I don't like too many people around me so I guess at the end of the day it suits me just fine.
Who are your idols?
Steffi Graf. I am very, very fond of her. Her game, her professionalism, she is just fantastic. As a kid I didn't watch too much badminton, but Prakash Padukone was a great, great player. I also greatly admire Gong Xinghao, who is now retired; he won the gold at the Sydney Olympics.