Ajay Jayaram recently made the semifinals of the Super 300 Barcelona Spain Masters, and was congratulated on the Badminton Association of India’s Twitter handle: “Tough luck…well played Ajay! (Two Bicep emoji) Let’s look at more such finishes”. The former India No. 1 replied: “I certainly can, if I get support from you guys.”
I certainly can, if I can get some support from you guys! https://t.co/5XPQ2CK91I
— Ajay Jayaram (@ajay_289) February 22, 2020
Indian badminton – which threw up two World Championship medallists last August – is going through restless times, with titles drying up at the highest level as the top names set sights on the Tokyo Olympics and its qualification. India’s best finishes at the Olympics have been quarters in men’s singles in 2012 & 2016 and bronze and silver in women’s singles in those two editions, and it’s looking to better those marks at Tokyo. With six months to go, there is unease simmering just below the cream of elite shuttlers, about what’s the ideal system for the sport to settle into.
The federation has attempted many well-meaning – but eventually disastrous – decisions in funding, selection and season scheduling in this last Olympic cycle. Diverting funds towards women’s doubles (where quality is strictly average) at the expense of men’s singles (where numbers are high) was one such. An unintended victim was Ajay Jayaram who went from being a Top 20 shuttler in 2017 (considered India’s golden year) to struggling for funding after returning from injury and dropping outside the Top 50.
The current World No. 53 speaks about his stinging tweet and the possible way forward:
What prompted the tweet?
I don’t think my intention with the tweet was anything other than hoping that BAI would consider the struggles we as players go through and implement actions that are for the benefit of everyone. In the end, Indian badminton needs to win.
Where did lack of support sting most?
I was in the Top 20 in 2017 when I got injured. Ever since my comeback after an eight-month hiatus, I’ve had to fund myself entirely for all international tournaments, let alone training and other expenses. Coming back from a major injury is always a big challenge in itself physically and mentally. But with the added financial burden, it creates immense stress.
What do you make of BAI’s funding system?
I understand BAI’s system of a ranking cut-off but I do believe that for a (former) Top 20 and India No.1 player coming out of injury, there should have been some provision to allocate funds for a certain fixed period at least. Post my comeback in 2018, I had a string of decent results including a bronze and silver at BWF Tour tournaments, but still didn’t receive any funding for tournaments.
What are the sacrifices involved for you and your family?
There have been many instances in the past decade when I believe I’ve had it harder than my contemporaries. But I am glad that I’ve stuck through and done alright at the big stage in spite of it. I’ve been blessed with a good support system at a personal level. My parents have made immense sacrifices of all kinds to get me to where I am today. I’ve been lucky to have coaches like Tom John and now Anup Sridhar, who have believed in me at my lowest and have been indispensable to my being where I am today.
How did you manage?
One system which India has gotten right though is PSUs like the petroleum companies employing athletes. I’ve been with Indian Oil for more than a decade now and their support has been immense. These past couple of years, especially, I’ve been able to compete in tournaments only because of the salary I get from them.
Can the national coach, P Gopichand, do something about this?
Gopichand has certainly changed the status of Indian badminton for the better. He is definitely largely responsible for the amazing results we’ve seen over the last decade. However, concentration of power in the hands of one person and one academy has its limitations and problems. And I’ve certainly faced the problematic side of it. We definitely need more such centres and equal funding and support for other academies and ex-players like Anup Sridhar. India has a surplus of talent at this point but we need a more solid system in place.
Can you elaborate on the ‘problematic side’ and specific instances?
No, I’d not like to elaborate.
Is the selection system problematic?
Coming back to the selection of players for teams sent to international tournaments, I do understand there has been a surge of Indian players competing and doing well. And hence the ranking cut-off. However, I do believe there is scope for adding provisions to fund more players, if not for all, then at least for some tournaments.
How does one decide who’s deserving since many stake claim to this funding pie?
For example, players who’ve had a good couple of results, top players who were injured, a junior who has done well (should be extended the funding). There needs to be a well-defined system and it needs to be implemented in an unbiased fashion.
Badminton has its heartbreaks and anxieties. You also sketch in spare time. Does it offset the rigours of shuttle?
Sketching is something I picked up around 3-4 years back. I used to enjoy drawing as a kid but didn’t pursue it much. I knew I was decent at it and wanted to get back to it to explore my creative side. Once I started, I absolutely loved it. It was cathartic of sorts. I love doing portraits and 3D sketches. I had seen 3D sketches online and the idea of how to do it just came to me. I recently started painting as well. I’m hoping to do it in a bigger way in the future, maybe.
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