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The Rediff Interview/Prakash Padukone

'Saina is a medal hope at the Olympics'

July 25, 2008


Prakash Padukone

To say his repertoire is impressive is tantamount to stating the obvious. Nine straight National titles, a Commonwealth Games gold medal (1978), the honour of being the first Indian to win the prestigious All England [Images] crown  (1980) and a World Cup (1981) is certainluy an impressive resume.

Add to that off-the-court honours, like the Arjuna Award (1972) and Padma Shri (1982), and you have a sportsperson who appears larger than life.

But Prakash Padukone surprises with his demeanour, patience and accessibility; every aspect of his personality is dignified and commands respect.

Thus, when he acquiesces to an interview request, you know beforehand what not to expect, or do, during that time frame. There's no banter, or off-the-cuff comments or slander; only pertinent answers (to questions related to badminton only) as the legend talks to Special Correspondent Bikash Mohapatra.

 

To begin with, do you see India having any genuine chance of winning a badminton medal at the Olympics [Images] in Beijing [Images]?

The competition will be tough, as all the best players will be there. But it's a draw of 32 and a knock-out format. I think a lot would depend on the draw and the day's performance. If we [our players] get a favourable draw, and are able to beat one or two good players, then they are straightaway in medal contention.

Especially, Saina (Nehwal); she has done particularly well over the last two months and is in good form. She has beaten a couple of players in the top 10.

And so is Anup (Sridhar), though not recently. About six-eight months back he beat the Olympic champion. If they are able to reproduce the same kind of form, then we can expect some good performances. But one cannot say for sure though.

With the application of the quota system in the Olympics, the entries of Chinese players at the event will be restricted. Do you see that helping players from other countries, like India, to an extent? (Interrupts�)

This (the quota system) has been there for a long time, and for all sports. In every sport there will be a restriction -- not more than three or four entries per event -- because they need to popularise the sport.

But, I think, there are so many good players that it wouldn't undermine the overall strength of any field. All the top players would want to peak at this time, because the Olympic gold is the ultimate prize any sportsperson can aspire for.

So, despite the quota system, the Olympics will always be the toughest as far as competition is concerned.

A question related to the one above. Do you think the overt dominance of China has been detrimental to the growth of badminton as a sport, and limited its popular appeal?

Maybe, to a certain extent, it is true. But you cannot blame them. All the other countries need to really work hard and make sure that they also come up and not let one country dominate so much.

We had done it when we were playing. China wasn't as dominant back then. We had players from other countries like India, Indonesia, Korea and Denmark.

The Chinese were also there, but it wasn't that they would win all the tournaments that were played.

But I think there is definitely a point there. Other countries need to work towards this and make sure that China's dominance is brought down to an extent.

In the women's competition, there are many Chinese, the opposition being restricted to a Dane or an Indonesian. (Interrupts�)

Indonesia has never really dominated the women's scene, except for Susi Susanti. She was one player who really took on China. Other than that, compared to their men, their women have always been weak. There may have been that odd player, but, as a team, they have never really troubled the Chinese. Maybe, the Koreans, sometimes the Danes. But there have been only one or two players.

Overall, in the women's game, the Chinese dominance has been total. If you see the quarter-final line-up in any women's tournament, six of the eight players will be Chinese, provided they are all allowed to play. At least that's not the case in the men's game.

Coming to the badminton scene in India, what is your opinion on the current state of affairs?

Badminton, as a sport, is growing very slowly in India. The domestic structure needs to be strengthened. We have just four to five tournaments for seniors, which isn't enough, especially for players who are coming up.

A league would definitely be of some help. We have leagues in Europe, in countries like Denmark and Germany [Images], and they are doing well. So, maybe, we need something like cricket's Indian Premier League [Images], albeit on a much smaller scale.

So what else does India need to do to bring back the glory days personified by yourself and Syed Modi?

A lot of things; I think we need both short term and long term targets.

In the short term, we need a good domestic circuit, right combination of coaching camps and tournaments. If you have too many coaching camps or too many tournaments it is detrimental. You need to get the right mix.

Talent spotting is definitely imperative. Someone who has the talent needs to be given the required support. I think a whole lot of things are needed to be done.

In the long term, of course, we need to improve the infrastructure in rural areas, talent spotting again is essential, especially at a young age, and we need to groom with specific targets -- say for eight years down the line - in mind. All of this needs a lot of planning.

How would you assess Saina's performance over the last couple of years?

After her Philippines Open victory two years back, she was not that consistent. Of late she has picked up her game again and in the last three tournaments that she played in the Asian circuit, she has done well. She seems to have got back her form and has had some good victories. Hopefully she is able to maintain that form.

Would it be safe to say Saina is a better medal prospect at Beijing?

Saina certainly is a medal hope at the coming Games. Of late she has been playing really well. So between she and Anup, she has a better chance of winning a medal for India.

Injuries and Anup seem to have become synonymous. This year, after attaining a career-best ranking (24), he was injured for two months and failed to build on the advantage.

To what extent can injuries affect the progress of a promising player, like him?

Injuries are part and parcel of a sportsman's career. It happens to all. One has to manage the injuries and plan a career properly. He has to be a little bit more responsible for his own self. Especially while training he has to ensure there's proper warming up, proper stretching, proper cooling and proper rest. Also he needs to plan his tournaments, play in some and rest properly before the next.

It is a combination of various factors that need to be taken care of. I am not saying that these can lead to injuries but they might happen because of that. So one has to be very careful about how to reduce injuries. One cannot avoid injuries; they will happen but one should see how they can be reduced. And that is an art by itself.

It is often seen that Indian players have an upper hand over bigger opponents but fail to finish things off. Anup had led Lin Dan on a couple of occasions but the match slipped out of his hands. Is it something to do with the mental aspect (weakness) of our players?

I think it comes more from experience and self-belief. Maybe, the styles of game both play are different. So he (Anup) needs time to get used to it.

I think the only way out is to keep constantly playing players of that style, players who play very fast and aggressive. So once you are able to put it across you come over that barrier. You develop that self-belief and you can carry on from there. But it needs a lot of hard work.

Finally, in your playing days badminton wasn't an Olympic sport. Any regrets on missing out on not playing in the Olympics?

No, not at all! I think one has to be practical. It just so happened that there was no Olympics when I was playing. If it was there I would have played and tried my best. But there are absolutely no regrets.

Photographs: Harish Kotian

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