India’s daughter looks to conquer All England

By T S Sudhir
“Himmat se khelo, jeetoge” (Play courageously and you will win) is an advice Dr Harvir Singh usually gives to his daughter, before she embarks on her international tournaments. `Grit’ in any case, is like the middle name of his daughter, who goes by the name Saina Nehwal, the number 3 women singles player in the world of badminton. 
That native wisdom delivered in chaste Haryanvi Hindi has played its part in propelling Saina into the finals of the All-England championship in Birmingham, UK. Perhaps that simple advice is all you need in between the cacophony of racquets hitting the shuttles on practise courts in foreign land and the steady advice from the coach, “hit deep, rush to the net, prolong the rallies, kill shuttle”. “Papa, don’t preach” is not a line Saina Nehwal ever says.
Back home in Hyderabad, Harvir Singh believes that Saina vanquishing Wang Yihan, her nemesis in many tournaments since the junior world cup in South Korea in 2006, is a good sign. Before All-England, Yihan held a 8-1 record against Saina. “She has always got the better of Saina. The win over Yihan will do Saina’s self-confidence a world of good,” he says. 
After defeating Yihan to enter the semi-finals, Saina climbed another summit on March 7, becoming the first Indian woman to reach the finals of this prestigious event, a title considered on par with the world championship. If she wins the finals today against world champion Carolina Marin of Spain, Saina will end a 14 year vanvaas (exile) from the All-England podium. Her former guru, Pullela Gopichand was the last Indian to win the title in 2001, the first being Prakash Padukone in 1980. 
It will be an important title to win for Saina, who with her 3-0 record against Marin, will fancy her chances. Since she split with Gopi last year and moved to Bengaluru to train with former national champion Vimal Kumar, there have been doubts expressed if it was a sensible move. Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad is India’s premier badminton gurukul, whose conveyer belt has produced several world beaters in the last decade. Saina’s decision was dictated by the fact that Gopi has only 24 hours on his watch and with many players demanding his attention and time, she felt the need for a coach who would be focused solely on improving her game. 
In hindsight, this has proven a masterstroke. Gopi had done something similar during his playing days, shifting from coach S M Arif in Hyderabad to Bengaluru to train under Ganguly Prasad. Perhaps history has its way of making a point. 
In 2001, Gopi had followed a familiar pattern through All-England which included eating roti, tandoori chicken and dal everyday at the same restaurant, listening only to M S Subbulakshmi’s Bhaja Govindam and Vishnu Sahasranamam on his walkman and staying away from reading newspapers or calling folks back home in India. Saina is in the same mould, whose world is the badminton court. 
Saina who faltered in the semis at the All-England in 2010 and 2013, would reckon this is her best chance to win the title. She is a big match player who will be inspired by the boisterous Indian crowd that will root for her in the arena. Gopichand’s triumph inspired an entire generation of youngsters to take to badminton. Saina’s feat will have a multiplier effect. 
The last week has seen a furious debate in the country over the ban on `India’s daughter’, produced by BBC. Today the world will watch as another one of India’s daughters lets her racquet do the talking in Britain.
(T S Sudhir is the author of Saina Nehwal’s biography, published in July 2012)

Padma Bhushan for Guru Gopichand

By T S Sudhir
“More than the news of the Padma Bhushan being conferred on him, Gopi is more delighted that Saina and Sindhu have entered the finals of the Syed Modi India Grand Prix Gold Badminton tournament,” said Subbaravamma, mother of National Badminton coach Pullela Gopichand.
That in a nutshell sums up Gopichand and his devotion to his craft. In fact, when P V Sindhu won the bronze medal at the World Badminton championship in August last year and comparisons with London Olympic Games bronze medallist Saina Nehwal began in right earnest, Gopichand said that his dream is to see his best two students in the final of a tournament because that will assure India of a gold and a silver. “We should look at them as Saina and Sindhu, not Saina versus Sindhu,” he had said.
Pullella Gopichand guiding Saina Nehwal .Photo/P.Anil kumar
In Lucknow for the India Grand Prix, Gopichand may well think Lady Luck has really smiled on him, with this double whammy. “I am happy and thrilled. It is recognition for what I have done for badminton in India, it will motivate to work more hard to make India a badminton powerhouse,” he said.
What makes this year’s Padma awards list even more special for Gopi is that well-known orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ashok Rajgopal, who perfomed three surgeries on the badminton player’s knee and a torn cartilage between 1994 and 1998 after his terrible accident during a doubles match on court, has also been awarded the Padma Shri. After ensuring Gopichand was once again fit to play, Dr Rajgopal had waived his fee and instead asked for an All-England Badminton championship trophy, saying “that will be my fee”. Gopichand ensured the doctor’s `fee’ was paid in 2001, when he won the title at Birmingham.
With the Padma Bhushan now, Gopichand becomes one of the most decorated sportspersons in India having been awarded the Rajiv Khel Ratna award, Padma Shri, Arjuna Award and Dronacharya award. 


Breathless, Kashyap takes your breath away

By T S Sudhir

Arvind Bhatt won the National badminton championship at Rohtak in Haryana this January. He defeated P Kashyap 21-13, 21-17  in the finals.
That’s what the records book will tell you.
But there was another champion, though he remained uncrowned. Parupalli Kashyap. For him getting there required more than talent and hardwork. It required grit and willpower to fight through a life-threatening situation and get to the finishing line, simply because he refused to give up.

The world number 25 describes the 75th Senior Nationals as a “horrible experience”.
“It was one degree inside the stadium. And I started coughing on day one. But I could not take my medication for asthma as the Badminton Federation had not got it approved. I struggled through my semis against Sai Praneeth as in the finals against Arvind. The approval that I could take the medication for asthma came after the Nationals got over.”
Bureaucratic red tape that can leave a sportsperson short of breath, haven’t we heard that before. Everytime Kashyap changes his medication, he has to get the TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) certificate from WADA. It is a tedious process to undergo the tests and produce medical certificates to renew the certificate every year.

Everytime the 24-year-old steps on the badminton court, he is up against two opponents. One, on the other side of the court and the second, himself. A player with a breathtaking style, Kashyap has to take tremendous care to ensure he is not breathless on court.
That’s why two inhalers (one for regular use and one SOS), tablets and syrup get into Kashyap’s badminton kit at the same time as his racquets, towels, shoes and shuttle cocks. It was only in 2004 that Kashyap’s succumbing frequently to cough, nasal congestion and breathlessness was diagnosed as triggered by asthma. All through his growing up years, everytime Kashyap reported the symptoms, he was inevitably prescribted antibiotics that led to fever. Kashyap feels a three-year stay in Bangalore between 2000 and 2003 made it worse, because of the pollen content in the city’s air.

“In all those years, my body did not grow strong despite all the training. From the age of 13 to 19, I was playing simply because I loved playing badminton. I am glad my parents were supportive and let me do just that. But at 19, when with the medication and training, my body became strong, I started winning.”
The medication had transformed Kashyap as a player. From just playing the game he loved and enjoyed, he started playing to win. 2004-07 were the years when Kashyap truly arrived as a player. Till one day in 2007, when he realised the medication was not working.

It was at a tournament in Thailand that he discovered after a morning match, he was feeling drained out for the evening match. Surprising, he thought, considering his rigorous training was much more strenuous. He realised the humid climate was aggravating his asthma, making it difficult for him to breathe.
“There would be instances where I would train very hard here but the moment I would go to a humid or a cold place, I would not be able to breathe properly. And I would get out in the first or the second round. I did not know I needed to increase the dosage of the medication or shift to a different medicine.”
Since then, Kashyap works as much on his game as on his medication. 2010 saw him fail at the All-England because the heater was not working inside the stadium and the very cold weather meant, he struggled to play beyond the first 15 points. “But even when the going is tough, I don’t feel like stopping, I just feel like going on, ” grins Kashyap, flashing his shy and very affable smile.
Kashyap says he did his own research on the net to find out what other sportspersons suffering a similar condition were doing. He found out those in the US and UK, for example, used completely different drugs and higher dosages. He sought help from the Olympic Gold Quest Foundation that was supporting him to see a specialist. It made life a bit easier but not a cakewalk.

The 24-year-old says his bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games last year was like magic.

“I had been training the whole year for the Commonwealth. There was a five-week long training camp but the first three weeks I was only coughing. I couldn’t take new medicine prescribed by the doctor because it needed to be approved by the Federation. I was very sad. But then the cough suddenly stopped and I trained for the last two weeks and won the bronze,” he says. Perhaps it was the power of the mind over the body.

Have there been instances where you wanted to just quit because the struggle is so much more than what other players had to go through, I ask.
“I don’t think too much about it because if I think too much, I will feel sad about it and I may end up stopping playing also. There have been many instances, where I have felt that I was training very hard and something happens and I cannot play. So I wonder if there is any point in training so hard. So I feel low. Then I tell myself, take it as it comes.”
Kashyap says he has to pay attention to detail which other sportspersons would ignore. Like taking care where he sits, ensure there is no dust around where he trains or sleeps, what he eats.
As Kashyap sweats it out at the Pullela Gopichand academy in Hyderabad, changing from a blue to a red to a dark blue T-shirt, he knows to take flight, he will have to draw as much on his talent as on his willpower. He says his goal was to break into the top 10 by the end of the year and the top 8 before the London Olympics, to stand a chance of a good draw.

“But after the Malaysian Open, where in the second round, I felt totally out of breath despite apparently no environmental trigger, I changed my approach. I don’t think about the goals now. I take everyday as it comes. I am confident that if my health is okay, I will achieve my target. I do what I must and try not to worry about what could go wrong.”
And if Kashyap with his mantra of `Impossible is nothing’ achieves his target, it surely will take India’s collective breath away at the victory of the human spirit.

(Photo courtesy :

When will India discover a new sporting religion?

By T S Sudhir
When Saina Nehwal crashed to a shock defeat in the first round of the Indian Series Open in Delhi on April 27, a championship everyone had expected her to win, her father Dr Harvir Singh Nehwal told me that evening, “Mark my words, she will bounce back strongly in the Malaysian Open. This girl just hates losing.”

Dr Harvir Singh’s `bachcha’ did not let her Papa down. She reached the finals of the Malaysian Open, getting the better of world champion Wang Lin enroute, in the quarter-finals. But Sunday, May 8 was not to be her day as she lost to world number three Xin Wang of China. This was Saina’s first defeat in 18 appearances in the finals.

That Sunday evening at 4 pm, a hopeful Dr Harvir Singh decided to watch the match at the Pullela Gopichand academy along with some friends from the media. As they surfed the sports channels, they discovered to their surprise that not a single channel was airing the match live.

Ditto the newspapers. In an IPL-suffocated media, only lip-service was paid to India’s world number 4’s exploits in Malaysia. Double column space in the newspapers, even when she beat the world champ. TV channels couldn’t completely ignore the mandatory news. Thankyou.

I am not deaf to the cliche of cricket being religion in India but Indians also need to get a reality check. Because out there in the towns and cities, the success of a Saina Nehwal is quietly spawning a quiet revolution.

Take Andhra Pradesh for instance. The state today has 17600 registered badminton players, the highest in the country, and these are players who play for the districts, state and the country. Important to note, there aren’t 17600 cricketers in Andhra Pradesh. And 294 indoor stadia in the state are helping players court success.

One of them is the badminton academy in Nandyal, promoted by local MP S P Y Reddy. The coach here is Venkat, Pullela Gopichand’s contemporary and friend. This academy has seen many a historic battle. Saina won the AP state title here in 2004 and the sub-junior national title the following year. Gopi has been a pillar of support and his photograph adorns the entrance to the academy.

Venkat shows me 8-year-old Vijay who is among the young talent showing promise at his academy. As Vijay warms up, his father Nagendra is keeping an eye on him. Nagendra is a RTC bus conductor on the Nandyal-Tadipatri route.

“I was a ball badminton player. I wanted Vijay to do well in badminton,” says Nagendra. “Our family was settled in Anantapur district. We shifted to Nandyal so that Vijay can do well in badminton.”

Another young boy greets me with a Namaste. His name is Dipesh and he has come that morning from Nepal, with his father, to improve his skills in badminton. 

I am surprised. “Why from Nepal to Nandyal?”  I ask.

Dipesh’s dad Harak Singh Dhani, who works in Nepal Telecom, replies. “Dipesh is Nepal’s under-17 badminton champion. But if he has to do better, he needs quality coaching. There are no academies in Nepal while badminton is now big in India. We had heard about this academy run by Venkat Sir. After four months in Nandyal, he will shift him to an academy in Hyderabad.”

The Pullela Gopichand academy, nominated by the Badminton Asia Federation as the Asia Training Centre, could be Dipesh’s destination if he improves his skills sufficiently by September. Since he retired as a player, Gopi has been focussed on proving that `Made in India’ can beat goods `Made in China’.

While the media focusses on one Saina, there are many more waiting in the pipeline, being chiselled and polished at this academy. Among them Sikki Reddy and P V Sindhu, touted as Sainas in the making.

However, the factory where the gems are first spotted amidst the crowd of talent that aspires to take flight is the Lal Bahadur stadium, located in the heart of Hyderabad. It was here that Gopi learnt to hold the racquet from the late Hamid Hussain in the mid-80s. As did  Saina in May 1999.

It was this indoor stadium that Gopi would head to, every day, twice a day, for close to 8 hours. Venkat talks about how if Gopi did not do well at a particular tournament abroad, he would insist on being taken straight from the old Hyderabad airport at Begumpet directly to the Lal Bahadur stadium, where he would work on the mistakes he committed.

Goverdhan, the Sports Authority coach at the stadium takes pride that for more than 15 years now, children from here have dominated the national championships in every category, from under-10, under-13, under-16 to under-19. He rues that there could have already been many more Sainas if only the young, promising talent had got the right support, guidance, opportunity and push to make it to the next level.

As I sit down before the telly in the evening to see the Warriors, Knight Riders and Chargers battling the Challengers, Tuskers and the Royals, I wonder how many years it will be before India discovers a new religion. The challenge is for the fragile shuttlecock to survive the Gaylestorms of the IPL and find space and airtime in a remote that doesn’t quite know how to move on from Dhoni’s devils. 

Fire on court

By T S Sudhir

For the last few years, Saina Nehwal and Indian badminton have been synonymous with each other. The ferocity of the success of the Haryanvi-Hyderabadi hurricane has eclipsed all other elements who too form part of the galaxy of Indian badminton.

The most prominent of them being Jwala Gutta. True to her name, Jwala is fire on court. Her critics would say, her problems with the badminton establishment have arisen because she is fiery off court as well. 

“I have always spoken my mind. That doesn’t mean I am a bad person,” reasons Jwala.
“We have been performing despite getting no appreciation. If the doubles players like me, Ashwini, Diju get even 2 per cent of the support and appreciation the Badminton association of India and media gives to Saina Nehwal, we would do much better. Diju and I did not have any sponsors even when we were world number 6. But Saina had sponsors when she was world number 15 and that played a part in her becoming world number 2.”
Jwala is right to a large extent. The BAI and the media have been largely focussed on Saina and her exploits, ignoring other equally commendable achievements on the world badminton stage. Jwala and V Diju till the other day were world number 6 (the ranking has now slipped to 11) and the two make a formidable pair on court.
The Commonwealth Games was Jwala’s chance to show what mettle she is made of. She went into the tournament, fighting “canards” of a link-up with former India cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin and their respective marriages being on the rocks because of this.

A lot of things were said about me in an attempt to distract me from my game. Now after Ashwini and I won the women doubles gold at the CWG, they have shut up,” says Jwala.

“Did the talk upset you and were you going into every match wanting to prove a point,” I ask.
“I will not say the personal canards bothered me because my family and friends always knew the truth and that helped me relax. Did I go into the court with a point to prove? Well, kind of and that is because I have proved myself time and again. Two years back, when the Badminton Association of India (BAI) had put us out of the team, I and Diju moved in the mixed doubles ranking from world number 89 to 6. It was such a big achievement but not a word of appreciation from the BAI.”
Does the BAI’s alleged step-treatment create a divide between Saina and the rest of the team, I ask Jwala.
“No, not at all. We are all happy for each other. I do not resent Saina’s success. She deserves every bit of it. We only feel bad that when we are also working as hard, the BAI does not bother to push our case. It is quite degrading and one feels very demotivated. If this is the way things continue, no junior would take up doubles badminton. Anyone else in my place would have quit long back,” says Jwala.
Jwala is now preparing for the Asian Games in China with Ashwini and Diju. The level of competition at the Games that start on November 12, will be much more tough than CWG, she admits. “Physically we are very fit, it is mentally that we have to be fit if we are to beat the Chinese,” she says.
As Jwala prepares for her on-court battles, all of India would hope she carries the embers of her fiery form at Delhi to Guangzhou. Time to torch the Great Wall of China, Jwala !

We deserve better

By T S Sudhir

2009 was probably the most newsy year for Andhra Pradesh for mostly all the wrong reasons. Here is my top 10 lows of the year, not in any particular order.

10. The late V P Singh used to say he always moved around with a resignation letter in his pocket. In the December of 2009, politicians of all hues in Andhra Pradesh emulated the former PM in letter and in spirit. Resignation letters were fashionable again, as the fax machine of the Speaker of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly whirred 24×7. No one in the state, it seemed, wanted any position of power. But look closely, each of the letters were drafted in a manner that would make them invalid. Sample: 12 ministers of the Rosaiah cabinet sending a joint resignation letter to Sonia Gandhi. But will someone tell these ministers also to immediately vacate their bungalows and surrender their securitymen. Tough chance, I am told, considering the CM’s official residence is still occupied by YSR’s son.

9. Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite weapon against the British Raj was unleashed in a new avatar. Fast-unto-death inside hospitals, supplemented with IV fluids and special nutrition, that can reportedly keep a person alive for years. K Chandrasekhar Rao, the political face of the Telangana movement, was the first off the block. His already frail structure, embellished by a grey stubble, made Delhi more nervous. His success in forcing the Centre to blink on the night of 9th December, motivated many a politician from the coastal Andhra-Rayalaseema regions to go hungry as well. The most famous of them, Vijayawada MP Lagadapati Rajagopal `escaped’ from Vijayawada government hospital because he wanted to `fast-unto-death’ in a better hospital. In filmy style that would have done a Chiranjeevi proud, Rajagopal, slipped through the police cordon from Vijayawada to Hyderabad and sprinted into NIMS hospital. A fast many a day makes you sprint away. Rajagopal incidentally also heads the Andhra Pradesh Olympic Association. If politics is the last resort of the scoundrel, hospitals were the last resort of the politician in Andhra Pradesh in 2009.

8. On a December afternoon, when politicians decided to go back to college, they had not quite contended with the ragging they will have to put up with. The moment Telugu Desam leaders set foot in Osmania University, they were attacked, one of them beaten up with chappals, his shirt torn. A few hours later, realising the public mood had turned against them, the students first blamed a rowdy-sheeter and a lawyer (ahem!) for leading the attack and then did a Munnabhai by giving the TDP-ians a `jadoo ki jhappi’ and roses. They have worked for now, but no guarantee, the thorns won’t prick tomorrow.

7. Hyderabad now has its own Bal Thackeray. Like the Maharashtrian Manoos, he too loves the good things in life. And has an acerbic tongue as well. KCR was quick to sense the political vacuum post YSR’s death and released the Telangana genie out of the bottle. He would like everyone to believe he is Mahatma Gandhi but the manner in which he has created the Telangana vs Andhra-Rayalaseema divide, coupled with pungent slogans of `Andhra waale bhago’, it is clear where he draws inspiration from. And there is undoubtedly more to come. Sample this warning : “If media houses continue to air anti-Telangana stories, they will face a reaction worse than what the Shiv Sena did.”

6. Except for a couple of chopper rides when floods ravaged five districts of Andhra Pradesh, Rosaiah has stayed grounded ever since his nameplate changed from FM to CM. Rosaiah has the top job but with his wings clipped, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. The 77-year-old started wearing sneakers to keep up with the times but time has only been running out for this Congress veteran.

5. `Na nar hoon, na naari hoon, Indira ka pujari hoon, Sanjay ka sawaari hoon, Main Narayan Dutt Tiwari hoon’ was just bad sycophantic poetry. Sleazy photographs of what seemed like the first citizen of Andhra Pradesh in a state of undress with two women was another huge low in public life. And once they were aired on a local Telugu channel, Tiwari’s BP obviously must have sunk. No wonder, the 86-year-old Governor blamed it on his poor health for submitting his resignation.

4. This one was truly rubbing salt into his wounds. Ramalinga Raju, till January 6, 2009, the icon of the IT industry in Hyderabad petititoned the court for a laptop to prepare his legal papers behind bars. The learned judge ordered a typewriter be provided instead. So for the moment, Raju will have to be content with and contend with the real mice inside Central prison. The man who rode the tiger without knowing how to get off it, was logged out of Satyam rather unceremoniously with very few willing to stand by him. Incidentally Raju, one of those from coastal Andhra who made it big in Hyderabad, is also hospitalised now at the same NIMS. KCR and Raju, Telangana and Andhra, in adjoining wards, that would be the stuff Telugu potboilers are made of.

3. A newspaper report that hyped up the terror threat to the first-ever world championship to be held in Hyderabad in any sport, did much damage to the city of the Charminar. Many badminton teams panicked, some decided to pack their racquets and shuttles and take the first flight back home. By the time P Chidambaram decided to do a guest appearance on the final day of the championship, the damage had been done. The `Hyderabad is safe’ line did not cut ice with foreign players. Probably we should have told them Headley and Rana did not visit this city.

2. Chiranjeevi is not used to flops. Even his flops recover money for his producers and distributors. Not so his political innings which has been a bit of a roller-coaster. He garnered a decent percentage of the vote but that wasn’t good enough to make him either the king or the kingmaker. Efforts to tie up or merge with Congress were blocked by powerful lobbies. By the end of the year, his slogan of United Andhra Pradesh made him a hate figure for pro-Telangana groups. The only silver lining for Chiru was his son Ram Charan’s success at the box-office with `Magadheera’, that dealt with the theme of reincarnation. Chiru reborn as a political star badly needs better support cast.

1. First Hyderabad’s success in tackling swine flu was held up to everyone as a role model. But in a few weeks, the spread of the H1N1 in the community was obviously too much to control. Andhra Pradesh recorded over 50 deaths due to swine flu. But no one knew December will see a more deadly form of virus : the political virus.

For 2010 and later, I certainly wish for the people of Andhra Pradesh a better set of politicians to choose from. They say, we get the leaders we deserve. I am certain we deserve better.

Happy New Year !