His maiden national title had come belatedly, at age 29, and on Sunday, Arvind Bhat picked up his first-ever Grand Prix Gold title winning the German Open to cap a spectacular week at Mülheim an der Ruhr almost midway into his 30s. At 34, Bhat became the first Indian since P Gopichand to win a Grand Prix Gold-level title in Europe.
The earnest shuttler’s career received a fresh lease of life in Germany this week, where he’s played the club league every summer, when he bested Danish World No 25 Hans-Kristian Vittinghus 24-22 19-21 21-11 in a nearly hour-long final that tested both his defense and patience.
“It’s taken time,” laughed the seasoned shuttler, adding “but it’s also taken time to come to terms with the fact that I was getting old!” Admitting that mentally getting accustomed to creaking joints and the fact that he was getting thumped occasionally by boys many years his junior was tougher, Bhat candidly said: “I had to accept that juniors were beating me in India, and they completely deserved being in the core group, even as us older guys were pushed to the sidelines.”
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Bhat, who has slipped to World No 87 now (he’s an unfancied 10th among internationally-ranked Indians) was up against a sprightly 25-year-old — though the Dane’s aggression ended up aggravating his dodgy back midway through the match, just before he dragged it into the decider.
Vittinghus had a 4-point lead in the opener at 12-8, but the Indian showed remarkable doggedness to draw level, and was snapping at the younger man’s heels chasing down shuttles tirelessly. Bhat twice saved game-points in the first-set before winning it 24-22 with an authoritative 3-point surge to close out the opener.
The lanky Bangalorean, whose prime years were thought to be half a deacde back, maintained the tempo in the second, before inexplicably allowing the Dane to inch back into the match, before his back spasms struck. While Vittinghus had upped the ante with an offensive flurry, he needed medical attention at 19-18 after he limped court-side and showed discomfort pointing to his taped back.
“It was tough when he took that break, because I started thinking ahead of myself, about winning. I also had to factor in the chance that maybe his back wasn’t as bad as he made it out to be and it was just to give me a false sense of confidence. Anyway, I was determined to not win by a walkover,” Bhat stressed. An old warhorse of the circuit, and no stranger to such tricks, Bhat said he kept his focus, knowing how much this final meant to him.
Though the Dane levelled the set-scores and (a change of shirt later) began prancing around the court with the same pre-injury purpose, Bhat looked more resolute than ever. In a dreamy week where he beat a range of players from talented to tricky to temperamental ones — Yun Hu, Daren Liew, Viktor Axelsen and Tien Chen Chou — Bhat was determined to not falter at the last hurdle.
A winner of minor titles — the Scottish and Czech Opens — and a finalist at Bitburger in Germany five years ago, Bhat had been almost training by himself in Bangalore even as he made peace with where he stood against India’s younger contenders. “I realised I couldn’t train like when younger, mindlessly hard. I needed to be smart about it,” he says, adding that though he’d been feeling good about his game, there were no indications at the start of the week that he could go all the way.
“I frankly didn’t think I’d go past the second round. But the slower shuttles early on suited my flicks and clears, and as the courts got faster in semis and final, I was hitting very well. Against Hans-Kristian, I knew I was playing better than him, but needed to keep my cool,” he added.
Arvind Bhat came very close to beating K Srikanth, India’s best young talent, earlier at Lucknow this year, a match that gave him plenty of confidence. However, the German title was reward for a man who’s persevered through the transition from being India’s prime shuttler to one bullied to the sidelines by juniors, a decade younger. However, the celebrations will be quiet, and only when he gets home. “I want to rush home. I’m getting older!” he chortled.