The Indian badminton landscape has undergone a radical transformation in recent decades, pioneered by the legendary Prakash Padukone. Gruffudd Owen speaks to the former shuttler about India’s badminton boom, and the future of the sport in the country
Of all the millions of Indian badminton fans who witnessed PV Sindhu’s victory over Carolina Marín in the final of the YONEX Sunrise India Open on Sunday – be it in front of the screen or among the capacity crowd at the Siri Fort Sports Complex in New Delhi – one man in particular will have appreciated just how far the sport has come in the country since his own playing days.
Having graced the court many years prior to the existence of the lucrative BWF Superseries – and retiring before badminton was first introduced as an Olympic sport in 1992 – Prakash Padukone’s achievements give him a legitimate claim as India’s very first badminton star.
Yet while the country’s household names of today including Sindhu have been able to reap the benefits of an established badminton infrastructure, for Padukone the experience of picking up a racket for the first time in the 1960s was markedly different – making his contribution to the development of the game in India all the more significant.
“Nobody knew what badminton was about,” the 61-year-old reveals.
“In fact, there was another sport called 'ball badminton' which was very popular in the southern part of India. If you just said 'badminton', it meant ball badminton. You had to specifically say 'shuttle badminton' if you were talking about the game we play today.
“That was how popular it was; in the whole of Bangalore, which even back then was a fairly big city, there were only three badminton courts.
“They were basically marriage halls; when there were no weddings, then you could go and play badminton on the cement floor.”
Unperturbed by the chronic shortage of just about everything required to set up a badminton club – equipment, opposition, facilities, sparring partners, sponsorship, money – Padukone’s father Ramesh nevertheless decided to introduce the sport to the southern Indian state of Karnataka, acting as both club secretary and coach at the Mysore Badminton Association in one of the state’s largest cities.
At seven years of age, Padukone first went along to the club with his father and took an instant liking to the sport. Despite the constraints and the nationwide lack of interest in badminton at the time, he won the national junior title at the age of 15 and soon began to compete internationally.
My victory at the All England Open in 1980 was the turning point for Indian badminton
And after clinching the gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, a historic triumph at the All England Open two years later saw him become the first Indian to win the men’s singles event at the world’s oldest badminton tournament – a seminal moment in the history of the sport in India.
“My victory at the All England Open in 1980 was the turning point for Indian badminton,” he explains.
“When I won that tournament, suddenly the game came into prominence in India. From being a minor sport, it turned into a major sport. It started getting more media coverage.
“I was also one of the first Indians to achieve something on the world sporting stage in an individual sense, and in a physically demanding sport.
“Indians had done well in sports like billiards, hockey and of course cricket, but I was one of the first people to show Indians that we are capable of doing well on a global level.”
If Padukone’s achievements during his playing career and his subsequent work as chairman of the Badminton Association of India (BAI) in the 1990s helped boost the status of badminton in India, then the second ‘golden age’ – which began at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and is spearheaded by two top-class women’s singles players – has seen the sport enjoy unprecedented levels of popularity in the country.
Hyderabad-based Saina Nehwal has firmly established her place in the top 10 of the women’s singles, reaching the world No. 1 ranking two years ago.
The 27-year-old’s plethora of honours includes the bronze medal at London 2012, an achievement that saw her make history as the first ever Indian badminton player to reach the podium at an Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Sindhu is in the midst of the most fruitful period of her still-fledgling career; on top of her YONEX Sunrise India Open crown, she surpassed Nehwal last year by becoming the most successful Indian shuttler in Olympic history, claiming the silver medal at Rio 2016.
Already a giant of the women’s singles circuit, she is expected to rise to a career-best ranking of world No. 2 following her most recent success in New Delhi.
For Padukone, the accomplishments of Sindhu and Nehwal have done wonders for the popularity of badminton in India.
“I now think that badminton is without a doubt the second most popular sport in the country after cricket,” he claims.
“All over the country – in big cities and small towns – new badminton courts are popping up.
“There's a lot more support now, and things are more organised. We have several foundations helping with the growth of the game, and a lot of academies are being built.
“Everything's going in the right direction.”
Badminton is without a doubt the second most popular sport in the country after cricket. All over the country, new badminton courts are popping up
Among the most prominent centres of excellence in the country is the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, founded by Padukone’s protégé Pullela Gopichand and whose notable alumni include PV Sindhu and men’s singles player Srikanth Kidambi.
Then there’s Padukone’s very own training centre, based in his hometown of Bangalore.
Since opening in 1994, the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy has overseen the development of a number of top-level Indian badminton players.
And there is currently a great deal of excitement within the academy regarding the progress being made by one player in particular.
“We have a young player called Lakshya Sen who's the current world No. 1 junior badminton player,” Padukone reveals.
“He's in my academy, and we identified him as a nine-year-old.
“I feel he has the talent to do well and go all the way. But it'll take at least another six to eight years.”
With his academy producing talented young players and general interest in the sport growing rapidly, these are heady days for Indian badminton.
And having been at the heart of the sport’s remarkable transformation – from hitting shuttlecocks in empty marriage halls in the 1960s to nurturing world-class talent in bespoke academies today – Padukone, more than most, can take great satisfaction from the country’s badminton boom.
“New facilities are popping up where people can go and play without having to be a member,” he says.
“As this spreads, I think a lot more people will start playing at an amateur level. The moment you make more courts and facilities available for the common man, the game will grow. I think it'll just explode.
“From all angles, things look very bright for Indian badminton.”