Parupalli Kashyap, along with his two best buddies Guru Saidutt and doubles shuttler Akshay Dewalkar, have often sat back after tiring training sessions at the Gopichand Academy, and planned a dream road-trip through Europe that will end in the Belgian town of Boom.
The trio have their favourite DJ David Guetta on loop at the academy’s premises and Boom’s “three-day non-stop party to electronic music where Guetta is God” at the Tomorrowland festival is where the three friends have wished they can someday unwind. “Once before we all get married, we three want to go there,” Dewalkar, who sat court-side for Kashyap’s semifinal filling in for Gopichand, said. Each year, it gets pushed to next autumn as the bigger boom-boom smashes of their lives in badminton take over and they stay content sneaking a weekend or two to Goa, where they again start making plans for Tomorrowland.
However, on Sunday, the now, the here and the today mattered more for badminton’s eternal tomorrow-man Parupalli Kashyap, who finally marched to his own tune and claimed a tournament as his own, picking gold at Commonwealth Games.
When on song on court, Kashyap is India’s finest badminton artiste to watch. His furious attritional battle against Derek Wong in the final on Sunday did not seem so ugly with his fluid court movement and wristy strokes. But in what was the ultimate nod to India’s most stylish badminton player, the late Syed Modi, the 27-year-old scored a sensational 21-14, 11-21, 21-19 victory over the Singaporan, Wong, to win India a Commonwealth Games men’s singles gold, 32 years after Modi’s triumph in 1982.
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“It’ crazy, it’s great, it was pressure. I’ve been in the Top 20 for 5-6 years and it counts for nothing, even if you’re India No. 1 unless you have a Games gold. They come once in four years. I wanted it bad,” he said, his hunger blazing through every smash he hit to start the first game with a whirlwind and go 1-0 up.
“Then, I felt I’d already done it and wasn’t ready for him to fight back,” he said, recalling the nervous moments against Wong, who was chasing a repeat of his father’s 1983 triumph at the South East Asian Games — the last time Singapore won gold.
Wong had turned on the aggression and was making Kashyap look meek in his returns, which fell limply at the net, as the match swiftly went into a decider. It was against this relentless aggression that Kashyap started constructing points, with both players deploying their entire arsenal of power and deft touch-play.
A typical rally could have drops, tosses, net dribbles, crosscourt parallels and the killer smash, as both showed great reflexes and flexibility in picking shuttles close to the ground. Yet, even as Wong led the scores by dominating the net, Kashyap was attempting to deny him just that – forcing a high lift at the net to set up his own smash.
Once in the bodyline territory of smashing, Kashyap didn’t hold back. “After Olympics, his net-play had deteriorated and he was impatient going for a kill every shot. When we came to Glasgow, I told him to slow things down and he was steady today,” Dewalkar, his childhood buddy, says.
The three friends – Guru also picked bronze – have stuck together through some of the rough phases of their life, including injury and poor form. “He’s had a tough family time, after his sister’s untimely death. He was staying at the academy before Olympics when tragedy struck and he would cry every night. But he’s tough; how he came back,” Dewalkar adds.
Comebacks are the theme of his life and in the match too, Kashyap would turn the Singaporean’s 3-point lead in the third on its head, with smashes he peppered with more authority than before. At 17-15, he even had Gopichand pumping his fists and even though Wong narrowed the gaps twice, Kashyap was trapping him into errors by mixing his game up. Three flick-serves in the end were the trump cards.
It ended with Wong mis-hitting one into the net, as a shirtless Kashyap roared wildly in celebration. “I’d slept well last night. I’m past that stage where I don’t sleep because of a match next day, I’ve lost enough,” he said, adding the thought of not facing No. 1 Lee Chong Wei was treated with equanimity. “I still had tough players to beat in the draw.”
Parupalli Kashyap’s often heard “No chance” said about the likelihood of him beating a top-notch rival — there’s always a Lin Dan or Lee Chong Wei lying in wait ahead of the medal rounds to pounce on his game and finish him off. On Sunday, with Kashyap fancying his chances against Wong in the Commonwealth Games final, there was another round of “No chance” doing the rounds.
This time, it wasn’t a formidable opponent but a debate over the news-space he would be granted even if he won gold. Two Indian officials had been arrested over the weekend for an alleged assault and the shuttler’s chances of upstaging that newsy notoriety weren’t too high. “I was ready for everything and everyone,” said the champion for whom Tomorrow had finally come.
Jwala Gutta doesn’t mince words. On Sunday, she was brutal in her assessment of her own game as she took the rap for letting her partner down, immediately after she and Ashwini Ponnappa lost the gold medal match to Malaysia’s young pairing of Vivian Kah Mun Hoo and Khe Wei Woon at the Emirates Stadium.
“It was stupid,” Jwala said, berating herself, adding, “I didn’t do my job well and committed a lot of unforced errors in the first. I should’ve supported her more on the court and created more chances for Ashwini to work on.”
For the second time in two weeks, the Indian pair started sluggishly and could only summon a fight as the match neared an end. Jwala was slow in the front court even as Ashwini harried around to guard the rear. The few times Jwala went on the attack, her left-handed smashes seemed like old, but there were mostly a lot of misses as the two flubbed a clutch of game points. “The pressure got to us,” she conceded, though back-to-back Commonwealth Games podiums for gold and silver ought to be enough for a legacy in women’s doubles.
“I hope people remember us for what we achieved, rather than what we didn’t,” she said wryly, even as Ashwini stepped in to defend her partner.”We’ve not played this pair since reuniting, so there was a bit of surprise. But we’ve been consistent this season. A silver’s not bad,” Ashwini said.
India’s shuttlers, who picked up 1 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze faced their darkest day at this Games when they couldn’t get past England for the mixed-team bronze, losing a podium place they hadn’t let go off since Manchester 2002.
It got rougher as PV Sindhu just couldn’t get past Canada’s spunky Michelle Li, who went on to win gold. “Before the semis, I told myself why I play this sport — to enjoy. It was important to not take the pressure,” Li said, answering as much for herself as she did for Sindhu, who having played a series of three-set thrillers this season, has been on a roller-coaster that very few teens will comprehend.
The 19-year-old, who has a bronze at the Worlds to her credit and has beaten a host of Chinese players — notably Yihan Wang who few have beaten — was inconsolable after her semifinal loss. She held her poise in the bronze-medal match to beat Malaysian Jing Yi Tee 23-21, 21-9 and if nothing else, this Games will stoke a hunger in her that might not be bad fodder while preparing for the Worlds in a month’s time.
Perhaps, the one happy bronze belonged to Guru Saidutt, India’s most consistent men’s singles player over the last six months. One of Gopichand’s earliest wards at his academy, Guru keeps low-key and plays within his limitations — he is lean, bounds around and dives for the shuttle.
“I’m No. 2, but I was glad to get on to the podium,” said the boy who had played at India’s Youth Commonwealth Games in 2008, alongside a junior Saina Nehwal.
Playing the third singles at the Thomas Cup this summer had given him confidence for the Games. “The standard of players wasn’t the best for a third single of team events, but the pressure would be high to not lose,” he recalled, adding that injuries to his back and foot had to be overcome in readying for a bronze.
Without Parupalli Kashyap’s gold though, India’s badminton campaign would’ve been labelled a disappointment. In the admission that silver and bronze were just not enough, lay the high standards Indians have set themselves for the future.