The Air Bender’s Smash

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Shuttle speed Parupalli Kashyap
Photo: Dijeshwar Singh

It’s six in the morning. The badminton stadium at the Siri Fort Sports Complex in Delhi is unusually abuzz. Two days ahead of the India Open Super Series, all five courts are in play. The highest-ranked Indian male, Parupalli Kashyap, 26, is practising the sudden-death point. One opponent, one rally; drop one shot and you’re out. Game over.

Kashyap, though, is far from over. A quarter-final finish at the All England Championship — which his idol and coach Pullela Gopichand won in 2001 — lifted him to his career best World No. 7, cementing his place in the top 10, a territory hitherto occupied only by two greats: Gopichand and Prakash Padukone. Even after crashing out in the first round of the ongoing Indian Open Super Series, Kashyap has gone up another spot to secure World No. 6 rank.

His explosive game has more speed than stamina, littered with his mother’s favourite shot — the jump smash that Kashyap first fell in love with at 13, watching videos of Chinese legend Sun Jun. But Kashyap does not fear the longer rallies any more. It’s been a long struggle to the top, conquering asthma and the obstacles that every Indian sportsperson faces: financial troubles, systemic failures, pressures to get a real job. He won the bronze medal at the Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010. At the London Olympics, he missed the bronze, but became the first Indian male to reach the badminton quarter-finals. He reached the semis at last year’s India Open and won the national championships. “He’s one player with potential, someone we can expect high results from at the international level,” says former coach Bhaskar Babu.

SM Arif, Kashyap’s first coach, remembers the hunger in the nine-year-old who was madly in love with badminton. “The other kids would complain of tiredness or look at the clock, but he wouldn’t leave!” After training for two hours in the morning, he’d return to the Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad, after school and watch the seniors practice, hovering around till 8 pm, hoping to play. Soon, he would line up 10 seniors to play with, each one a backup if the others cancelled. “He’d ask senior players to come early for him if they said they didn’t have time after their games,” remembers his mother, Parupalli Subhadra. “They’d give him half an hour.”

But enthusiasm and dedication didn’t translate into results, as Kashyap went unnoticed at his first national tournament at the under-13 level. In the under-16s, too, his performance was erratic; he would be seeded in the top three, but sometimes lose in the initial rounds. He would also be ill for at least 15 weeks every year, and spend seven to eight weeks recovering. The general physician bombarded him with antibiotics, but the breathlessness and bouts of illness continued. Naturally, his performance plummeted.

Kashyap didn’t know then that his father had lost his job and taken loans to support his training and tournament expenses. “As a middle-class family, it was difficult to afford his equipment,” remembers his mother. “Even the shuttlecocks were pretty expensive.” Kashyap says it was a huge gamble, one he may not have taken if he were in their shoes. Oblivious to his family’s dire financial situation, his concerns were mostly about why his training didn’t produce results, why children his age were growing physically stronger, but not him.

Eventually, his mother’s faith faltered. “It was my last year in the under-16s,” he recalls, “the National Championships at Patna were ahead, and she said I’d better reach the semis or they’d have to consider discontinuing badminton. Until then, I had played for fun, but now I became emotional about badminton. I desperately wanted to win because I didn’t want to quit playing. Luckily, I made it to the third place that year.”

Yet, when the breathlessness persisted, a chest physician identified a clear case of asthma. “There goes badminton, I thought. But the doctor showed me a book with stories of asthmatic sportspersons who had done outstandingly well, like long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee or marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, who still holds the women’s world record.”

Bad luck and systemic failures continued. Kashyap had qualified for the World Junior Championship, but the tournament doctors refused to let him play without a certificate for his asthma medication, which included banned substances. The Sports Authority of India doctors failed to guide him. Thankfully, in 2004, the Athens Olympics introduced a Therapeutic Exemption Certificate, that allowed him to play with medication. He still gets it renewed by the World Badminton Federation every year.

Inconsistency plagued Kashyap’s early career. He reached the finals of the National Junior Championship in 2004, but lost in the first round of the next under-19 tournament he entered, despite being the top seed. Coach Gopichand insists that they have worked to iron out his inconsistency and that Kashyap is now physically stronger.

Gopichand has been a turning point for Kashyap’s career in more ways than one. His parents lived as tenants in a house owned by Kashyap’s relatives, and Subhadra introduced her son to the sport because she felt their access to Gopichand — then a star player — would provide him with expert guidance. Kashyap joined Gopichand’s academy in 2005, and the training helped him win almost all the tournaments that year. He landed a job at Indian Oil, providing financial stability to his budding career.

Kashyap attributes his late blooming to the fact that in India, an athlete has to choose between a job and taking a gamble on a sports career (“This is why we’re not China”). He took his engineering entrance exams, but chose to focus on badminton. The gamble paid off; in 2006, he was globally ranked at 64, and has made steady progress since.

Support from Viren Rasquinha’s Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) has helped deal with his asthma since 2010, with the OGQ footing the bill for expensive hospitals, treatment and even physiotherapy to reduce injuries. He consulted a nutritionist, who chalked out a diet plan to match the energy levels required for his gruelling training, another systemic failure of Indian sports that Kashyap points out. “It’s lacking in the Indian sporting culture. People laughed and said, ‘Khana khake thodi jeet jayega?’” His nutritionist Dr Dhananjay More adds, “It’s not just sportspersons, but even Indian coaches who are oblivious to the importance of controlling one’s diet to best supplement the practice regimen.

After overcoming professional setbacks, Kashyap suffered a personal loss when his elder sister committed suicide in 2011. He pulled out of the Indonesia Open Super Series and a few tournaments to support his family. With qualifiers for the Olympics around the corner, he rushed into a few tournaments and floundered. After finding his feet, he started making it to the semi-final and quarter-final stages at tournaments again, doing enough to secure qualification.

Former English national coach Tom John, who worked with him at Gopichand’s academy, feels that due recognition still evades Kashyap as Saina Nehwal keeps the spotlight by staying near the top of the women’s game. He feels Kashyap’s is a harder achievement, as “the men’s badminton game is more open. A player ranked in the 30s can take any top 10 guy by surprise. It’s anybody’s game. But in the women’s section, just eight to 10 players dominate the world over”. Perhaps there is some truth to that, seeing that Padukone or Gopichand never had a Saina in their time; their individual rise in the world rankings had more impact.

Having crashed out early from the India Open (he lost 21- 13, 21-23, 18-21 to old rival Taufik Hidayat), Kashyap has already begun preparations for his next tournament, the Sudirman Cup in Malaysia. “I feel my life’s been scripted along that Paulo Coelho quote,” he says, “that when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” He’s hopeful that the Indian Badminton League that starts in June will bring popularity and money to the game he loves, but Kashyap wants more. He wants to be No. 1.

shonali@tehelka.com

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