“I’ve eaten some real nice rabbit. But please don’t tell anyone. They’ll think I am cruel.” The Indian shuttler, a regular on the travelling circuit, loves what tender rabbit meat in a far eastern city tasted like, but he is understandably coy.
The breed of the badminton brat is yet to surface in India. And though these are like any other 20-somethings eking out careers on the competitive circuit where Indians are just only starting to strut their stuff on the court and doing what other 20-year-olds do in their spare time, something as adventurous as a rabbit on a plate is still taboo-talk.
Good boys and good girls, sincere and hardworking plodding half the year away trying to win Super Series and World Championships in Asia and Europe, India’s international shuttlers move around in packs, living out of quaint, cosy — but not always 5-Star — hotels. They deal with their wins and losses within the confines of the hotel and badminton stadium and the ubiquitous shuttle bus that ferries them back and forth between the two.
Someone’s always ingenious enough to track down the nearest Indian take-away no matter which port of shuttle they’ve sailed into. At the tiny city of Odense in Denmark where the bunch hopped into this last week, a vaguely Goan tuck-away which had enough palak, saag, chicken tikka, karahi, dhania and korma on the menu did just fine. “They need rice once a day, they mostly come from south of India,” a physio says, adding, “But this generation of players has been travelling since their teens, so they usually settle in easily wherever they go — food and weather and all, without complaints.”
India’s acquired the heft now to command the better hotels — so they stay where the Koreans and the English squads do in Odense. Saina Nehwal maybe World No. 1 pulling this entire train along with the likes of India’s three Top 15 men’s singles players and the Jwala Gutta-Ashwini Ponappa duo. But Indians still travel modestly and unostentatiously. Rooms that are cosy but not grand, food that’s varied at the breakfast table — some scrambled eggs, some pancake, fruit, bread and cheese, the usual continental spread — but not always what the hot food the heart warms upto. And a stadium-hotel commute that sees even the game’s greatest superstars Lin Dan or Chong Wei hop onto the official shuttle bus, with team managers assembling their flock keeping an eye on the schedule of the frequency of transport, since hard-nosed bus drivers are ordered to work to clockwork.
So, even a Saina Nehwal gulps down an early 8 am breakfast and scrambles about to make the 8.30 shuttle for a morning hit with her coach. And coaches usher players back after midnight matches to ensure no one misses the last bus.
There are visible cliques within the team — but nothing that will burn the house down. Nehwal, Kashyap, Ajay Jayaram are thick, as are Sindhu, Jwala and Ashwini. The younger lot — Sumeet Reddy, Srikanth and Sindhu hang out together, though each of them — Srikanth or Nehwal can be seen building themselves walls and creating a zone just ahead of their matches.
Indians travel better these days equipped with physios than the times when only Belladona bandages accompanied them. And times have improved marginally than when the likes of Madhumita Bisht, former player, now coach, chomped away endlessly at bread and butter because nothing else was available. It’s not like hotel chefs in Denmark will roll out idlis or parathas, just that players are more open to eating whatever’s on offer, instead of starving themselves silly.
The day’s plans revolve around what time each player’s match is scheduled, and music is a constant companion just as laptops and iPads and constant twitter, facebook updates on smartphones help keep players’ heads down and away from mischief outdoors.
“I wish they would move out a bit, but I think they are never very keen to step out just to explore either because it’s too cold outside or they are understandably focussed on the day’s match,” Nehwal’s coach Vimal Kumar says. “I understand they want to be careful, but as they grow older they’ll realise that they can’t sit cooped inside a hotel room. I like to go on long walks in Europe, and sometimes me and Gopi have gone on walking trails. But they’ll learn all in good time,” Vimal says.
But rest is a serious business these days.
There’s times when players will step out for dinners, the occasional window shopping or just for the takeaway, but otherwise it’s R&R inside the hotel rooms with a game of cards and movies on laptops. It’s not odd for a player to draw on the blinkers and see airport-hotel-stadium-hotel-airport, all of them looking pretty much the same. “But it’s much better now,” Bisht says. She played in times when players would sleep in hostels on bunk-beds, find their own breakfast and carrying a racquet would give them a complex. “We never stayed in official hotels back then. And even airfare wasn’t guaranteed. We’d do our racquet guttings with our hands and always struggle because playing with imported shuttles was different from what we had at home,” she says.
During one trip to France, she would go looking for a manual gutting machine with her husband. It was a princely 200 pounds, and the shopkeeper would tell her that she could pawn her solitaire nose-pin in exchange for the machine. “My husband said OK, but I didn’t want to part with it. We managed to collect 200 pounds somehow,” she recalls. “Today, players are only expected to perform on court,” she reiterates.
“It’s not like players can complain about anything. And things are getting better with someone like Saina travelling with her personal physio. Now there’s coaches to look after players’ needs and to talk to them through the match. So the only challenge is to somehow put it all together on the court. Dealing with early exits and getting over losses quickly,” player-turned-coach Arvind Bhat says.
Dealing with defeats
Backstage at the stadium, typically, Nehwal would arrive a few hours before her match. She’d start on her stretches as the penultimate match before her’s enters its mid-second set. After extensive stretching under the supervision of the physio and an intensive hit with the coach, she’d get into that zone that players often do: an expressionless, unseeing face, screwed up in concentration and a racquet whipping about more in anticipation than nervousness. The routine’s much the same for most players, as they share the training courts with other shuttlers — immediate competitors even.
A loss means leaving the player alone with even close friends not daring to interfere with the recouping and healing while defeats are processed. A coach will gauge the mood mostly and decide when to intervene for a few words of commiseration or an instant pep talk to shake the player out of their melancholy.
Still, sometimes, nothing feels more sheltered than the dimly lit, cocoon of the shuttle bus. It takes players home, well, the hotel — another layer of fortification, at best. There’s always the hope that they spend the week in the same city they arrived in on semis and finals days of Saturday or Sunday.
Suitcases are forever poised to be packed, at the shortest of notices.