Aparna Popat ruffles through the pages of her memory until she settles on the chapter where she is a 20-year-old competing at her first Commonwealth Games.
It is 1998 — much before Saina Nehwal’s Olympic bronze or PV Sindhu’s silver four years after the fact. The Indians are yet to make associated with terms like heavyweights or top choices, which at present go with them to badminton fields the world over. Basically, seeing the Indian unexpected didn’t exactly influence their adversaries to tremor when they strolled onto the court. Not at that point.
Popat, at 40 years of age, recollects her 20-year-old self-staring at the scoreboard at the arena in Kuala Lumpur. The score shows that she’s trailing 1-9 in the third game with a spot in the women’s singles final on the line.
Popat said a line again and again in her psyche. Relatively like a serenade. “On the off chance that you lose this match, you’ll think twice about it for whatever is left of your life.” The words have their impact. Popat mounts an apparently implausible rebound and wins. She goes ahead to lose in the last, yet silver as a shading is more consoling than bronze.
“I was probably the junior-most player on that Indian team, but there were expectations of me. Were there nerves? Definitely! Pressure? Definitely!
“To go there and get a silver medal, I probably played out of my skin. For me, it was the best way to kick-start my career. Until that point, I had done well at the junior level, winning a World Junior silver medal just two years earlier,” Popat said a few days before the start of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Popat’s silver didn’t just symbolise the coming-of-age of a single shuttler. That edition, Kuala Lumpur 1998, saw something else click in the Indian badminton contingent.
Coached by the trailblazing Prakash Padukone, the Indian badminton contingent returned with four medals, with the men’s team claiming silver and the women’s team winning bronze. A male singles shuttler, who goes by the name of Pullela Gopichand, too claimed a bronze.
“At such events, at the back of your mind, there’s always that thought that this is a once-in-four-years opportunity. If I lose this chance now, the next time comes four years later. That’s too long a time for an athlete. You never know what’s going to happen, in terms of form or fitness. The World Championships will come back. The All England will come next year itself. Whatever you have to do, you have to do it now, now, now!” says Popat.
A lot of things have changed in these 20 years for Indian badminton.
“Presently, things are substantially more sorted out. Adolescents like Satwik or Chirag can even think similar to an Olympics. They have the advantage of reasoning that regardless of what happens today, they will be bolstered till the following Olympics. In our chance, it didn’t work that way. On the off chance that you didn’t perform today, tomorrow you’d be out of the group as it were.
“Look at how we played the Nationals. If I didn’t win the Nationals, I wouldn’t be part of the Indian team for the entire year. That’s how the consistency I had in my career happened. These kids don’t have that pressure. It’s a different kind of pressure. The current generation of Indian badminton players is aiming only in the top 15 ranks in the world. It’s not like us, our targets were to qualify for the main draw of the All England. All England main draw ho gaya? Achievement! Olympics qualification ho gaya? Achievement!
“Now when we go into tournaments, we only think quarter-finals onwards. Do we even look at the first or second round?”
As Popat puts it, “When I was competing for India in 1998, we went in as underdogs. This time around, we were favourites.”
India satisfied that tag, coming back with six awards. While Saina and Sindhu played an electrifying ladies’ singles last to make a case for two of those decorations, Kidambi Srikanth brought back a silver. Group India won the gold, while in men’s pairs, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty won silver. Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy won the 6th decoration for the Indian unexpected.
The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games have left behind a hail of feel-good imagery.
Be it wrestler Vinesh Phogat scooping up her Canadian opponent Jessica MacDonald — a three-time World Championship medallist, no less — on her back before body-slamming her to win gold and exorcise the ghosts of ending the Rio Olympics due to a career-threatening injury.
Or weightlifter Mirabai Chanu’s earrings moulded like the five Olympic rings as she moved past the disappointment of five no-lifts at Rio 2016 with six CWG record-shattering lifts.
Youngster Mehuli Ghosh discovering flawlessness with a 10.9 shot in her last endeavour in the 10m air rifle occasion. Or then again another young person Manu Bhaker’s walk around the gold award in the 10m air gun after likewise shattering the CWG qualifying mark set when she was four years old. Manika Batra’s four awards. Or on the other hand youthful Neeraj Chopra’s one.
It was a turn-of-the-page occasion for Indian badminton too from multiple points of view.
Before this, no Indian men’s copies match had medalled at the CWG. In youthful Satwiksairaj and Chirag, India found a conclusion to that hoodoo. Before this, the Indian group had never won the blended group gold. Indians did it this time, without requiring the administrations of PV Sindhu.
The mixed team gold, in particular, was momentous, a victory brought about by the calm-headedness of experienced hands and the exuberance of youth.
Just like Popat did 20 years ago, Satwiksairaj found himself, and partner Ponnappa, staring at certain defeat in the opening match of the final against Malaysia, trailing 7-11 in the deciding game. Just like Popat, Satwiksairaj and Ponnappa emerged victorious over the Rio Olympics silver medallists Peng Soon Chan and Liu Yong Goh, despite conventional wisdom suggesting it was a lost cause.
With the surefootedness of Ponnappa controlling him, Satwiksairaj directs a hail of crushes at their adversaries, until the point that they have lost, to start with, the will to restore the bus, and second, the match.
On the off chance that Satwiksairaj was the star of the blended duplicates occasion, Chirag held influence in the men’s pairs experience against Rio Olympics silver medallists Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong.
Having lost the main amusement, Satwiksairaj and Chirag react by rattling off the first three focuses in the second diversion before surging to a 14-9 lead. They, in the end, enabled the Malaysians to make up for lost time at 17-17. In a see-saw coordinate, they at that point wind up sparing two match focuses on 18-20, which they do. They, in the long run, lose, yet by this point, they’ve shown more cull than the 21-15, 22-20 scoreline proposes.
In the middle of the two copies experiences, Kidambi Srikanth disregards the heaviness of his own past to crush Lee Chong Wei in straight recreations interestingly. Fittingly, it is Saina who comes and wraps up a triumph, and the gold.
A fortnight which started with India winning blended group gold at the Gold Coast closes with seeing Satwiksairaj and Chirag winning silver. For good measure, someplace in the middle of those six decorations, Srikanth ascends to the World No 1 spot.
A genuine measure of exactly how great the badminton group has moved toward becoming will come at the current year’s Asian Games, with any semblance of China and Japan likewise in the blend. Until at that point, the Indians will have the fulfilment of winning six CWG awards.