“Isn’t it like a war camp out here?” I asked Parupalli Kashyap in a teasing tone.
We were sitting in one corner of the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, as he rested after a practise session. The air, as always, was filled with screeching sounds of the shoes massaging the Yonex courts, the shouts of motivation and the grunts of despair of players and National coach Gopichand moving around, keeping an eye on just about every ward.
Kashyap laughed and answered in Telugu. “No no it is not like that. Everyone knows they have a job at hand. We have such a big event coming up.”
That was some three weeks ago. Today as Kashyap won the first match for India in the men’s singles badminton at the London Olympics 2012, I couldn’t help thinking that the war drill had paid off. The world number 21 defeated Yuhan Tan of Belgium 21-14, 21-12 in the first match of his Group D. Kashyap will next face a more stern test against world number 11, Tien Minh Nguyen of Vietnam and only the player topping this group will move to the knockout pre-quarters stage.
Though more than thirty-odd places separate Kashyap from Tan and the Indian had won the last time they had met, perhaps the London nerves meant Kashyap struggled to earn each point, especially in the first game. Tan did not make it easy for Kashyap who employed an effective combination of net play and sharp smashes to get the better of the European. Kashyap’s body language seemed to indicate that he had come to win and wasn’t going to brook an upset.
What helped in the second game were Gopi’s instructions, clearly audible on telly. As fellow coach Edwin looked on, Gopi lapsed into Telugu to tell Kashyap not to delay hitting the shuttle and instead go for it to put pressure on Tan. The strategy clearly worked as an exhausted Tan found it difficult to pick up Kashyap’s aggressive surgical strikes at the net.
The next match against Tien will be both tough and critical. A defeat would see Kashyap turning into a spectator and tourist in London. But if his form at the Indonesia Open last month is anything to go by, Kashyap will not go down without a fight. He upset top seed Chen Long at Jakarta, showing that Indian shuttlers no longer choke at the sight of a higher ranked player. The only issue with Kashyap has been he is brilliant on court one day and erratic the next. Given that his game against Tan today wasn’t a Ferrari drive, one can expect to see him come out all guns blazing against Tien, with the prospect of a pre-quarter berth certain to fire him up.
Indian badminton today has become synonymous with Saina Nehwal, which is why the success of Kashyap at these Games is so critical to men’s badminton in the country. You cannot find a better role model than Kashyap, who has battled his severe asthmatic condition as much as his rivals, for gen-next. And that mischievious smile that he retains even in the worst of circumstances is a pointer to his never-say-die spirit. He will need to make his London Dreams count.
(T S Sudhir is the author of `Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography, released in July 2012)