Valiyaveetil Diju had a lot to say, at the net, when it was time to shake hands with his opponents. His partner Chetan Anand had already left the court, as Diju spoke animatedly to the pair of 16-year-olds from Manipur — Manjit Singh Khwairakpam and Dingku Singh Konthoujam — whom he and Chetan had beaten 16-21, 21-19, 22-20 in the first round men’s doubles match at the Senior Badminton Nationals. The two-time Commonwealth Games medallist had been irked by the teenagers’ repeated denial of their requests to change the shuttle cock. That, and the fact that the pair let slip an 18-12 lead in the third game to lose the tie against the veterans.
“That’s what the Nationals should be about,” says the 36-year-old, just after ending his discussion with the juniors in the players’ waiting area (the referee had asked Diju to vacate the court). “Having seniors talk to and analyse games with juniors is what helps them improve, and a tournament like this offers that kind of meeting.”
The senior-junior interactions this term, in the 82nd edition of the event at the Divisional Sports Complex in Nagpur, has put up an enthralling list as far as older players are concerned – all the big Indians names the sport has to offer have confirmed their participation. The likes of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy – all in the top 15 of the men’s and women’s world rankings – top the roster.
And it’s because of the star cast that the tournament, which had steadily lost its charm, is growing back in stature. The facilities itself have had been meticulously arranged, complete with air conditioning and well-maintained courts.
“It gives you the feel of an international tournament, and that was the missing piece of badminton’s growth in India,” says Mohammed Siyadath Ullah Siddiqui, a coach at the Gopichand Academy. “The sport has seen rapid improvement with players winning all over. So when the senior nationals becomes a reputable tournament, the game is complete.”
Over the years, top players had overlooked the event in search of ranking points in international tournaments. Nehwal hasn’t competed at the senior nationals since winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Sindhu too has been an absentee, after winning the 2011 and 2013 editions. As a result, event organisation had deteriorated.
Diju recalls playing conditions from last year’s edition in Patna. “The lights went off during matches, and there was a half-hour break because of it even during the finals,” he says.
There were also reports of a leak in the ceiling, and smoke detected within the stadium after a power cut.
Prashi Joshi, playing in only her second nationals, came to Nagpur expecting much of the same. “I was surprised when I first walked in to see the courts here. It’s much different, and it makes you feel like putting on your A-game.”
The 17-year-old won her opening match, and is now two wins away from a possible clash with Sindhu or Saina – who have been given pre-quarterfinal entries into the tournament along with the other high-profile players. “That gives us a target of getting to the pre-quarters, to earn the right to play them. Maybe we’ll have some momentum and give them a good fight too,” Joshi adds.
The presence of the big guns has taken the competitive nature of the tournament up a notch. Budding players aren’t playing to win a has-been event anymore. Rather, there is a sense that they’re at an international event, looking for a chance to pull off an upset against the country’s elite.
Manjit and Dingku nearly pulled off one against Chetan and Diju. The teens stayed back in the waiting area, once Diju was done with them, dissecting everything the four-time national champion had told them.
In unison, they agree about the need to keep their focus even when in a winning position. But they aren’t too pleased about the shuttle cock incident. “They wanted us to change it because they thought it was too fast and couldn’t handle it,” says Manjit. “But we were trying to win the match just like they were. So why should we give in?”