Updated: July 30, 2021 8:27:35 am
While the breathless power and speed of modern badminton looms large around us, a giant of gentleness passed away. Little to nothing of the badminton doyen’s game was committed to taped memory, so YouTube might be of no help. But for a sport that has seen India climb up to global echelons with Olympic contention at three straight Games, the idea that an international winner once existed, forged out of neither strength nor speed, but soft touch, is a charming throwback to tender sepia. Nandu Natekar, who hailed from the genteel sugar bowl of Sangli, was charmed by the Malaysian and Danish greats who graced the soft wooden courts of South Bombay. None of their frenetic pace, however, could turn him away from playing a brand of badminton that relied on anticipation and deception in stroke-play.
In the 1950s and ’60s, when shuttlers went around their head to cross returns, Natekar would develop a pleasant backhand game. Crowds thronged to watch him caress the shuttle back, relying on placement, against the great T N Seth. Seth, who glided on the court with equal grace but used the backhand defensively, set up a fine show with Natekar as India began to appreciate the indoor sport. Natekar also persuaded a generation to think about the sport, himself being a great controller of the shuttle and a master strategist who could read rival games.
Suresh Goel, and later Dinesh Khanna and Prakash Padukone, would inherit the same sponge soaking, cerebral ability of Natekar to master the wrist-craft, before compulsions of the competitive circuit brought in elements of power, speed and fitness to the game. Yet, Natekar was not game for flamboyance. Along with tennis icon Ramanathan Krishnan, Natekar set Indian racquet sports on a path that went deeper into skills than a win-loss zero-sum game.