One may not be prone to overt display of emotions at most times, but when one is recognised for a lifetime of achievements, it is quite normal to feel a bit overwhelmed. The terms ‘legend’ and ‘pioneer’ are often used loosely, but Prakash Padukone is one name that fits the bill completely. As such, conferring the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award of the Badminton Association of India (BAI) on the country’s first All England champion and World No. 1 was a no-brainer.
Padukone’s achievements in badminton don’t need an award to be recognised. But even so, receiving the honour in front of family, including wife Ujjala and filmstar daughter Deepika, former teammates and friends was enough for the racquet artist from yesteryear turn emotional.
“I did not play for money, awards, rewards or to please anyone. I played for the love of the game, my own satisfaction and challenging myself,” Padukone said in a choked voice after receiving a citation and a cheque of Rs 10 lakh from the hands of vice-president M Venkaiah Naidu.
“I recollected the time when I started playing badminton without their being any facilities for the sport. The game has grown a lot since, and there were tears of joy,” the 62-year-old would say later. “I only wish I could do something for the players of the older generations who came from smaller towns and could not make it big.”
A sport transformed
Padukone’s heyday in badminton spanned the 1970s and the early 80s, when he won several titles on the international circuit as well as the Commonwealth Games gold medal at Edmonton in 1978. The game has changed considerably in the three-and-a-half decades since, with the onus now much more on athleticism and power. Padukone, whose game was based on touch, finesse and precision understands the demands of modern sport.
“Not just badminton, all sports have become a lot more physical in nature. There may not be so much stress on deception and touch play, but to get something, one has to forego something. One needs a combination of various qualities to be a successful shuttler,” the first Indian shuttler to shift base overseas, Denmark to be precise, said.
“Now you also need a lot of support around you in the form of coaches, physiotherapists and nutritionists. You require a good team besides a technical coach.”
A potential powerhouse
India has come a long way in the shuttle sport from the days when Padukone was the only Indian on the international circuit. Right now, there are three Indians inside the top 15 of the world rankings in men’s singles and two in women’s singles. Padukone, who grooms budding youngsters at his academy, feel India has the talent to compete with the likes of China, Denmark, Korea and Japan on level terms. “Sky is the limit. There is no dearth of talent in India. We just need to tap it. BAI and the state associations need to take up a pro-active role in this regard. It is a matter of administration, funding and planning,” he said.
“A starting point could be to have an academy in each zone, before we have one in each state, fully funded by the government or BAI. But it is also vital to have the right people running those academies, so that players get opportunities on merit. It is also important to recognise coaches who provide results,” Padukone added. “With a good structure and coaching, we can be a badminton powerhouse.”
Padukone keeps an eye on the current era in badminton, and is appreciative of the current state of the sport. “The game is much more competitive these days and even at the Olympics, badminton is one of the most-watches sports. There are a lot of fine players I enjoy watching.”
But ask about the greatest one he played against, and pat comes the reply. “It would be Rudi Hartono. He was one of the all-time greatest,” Padukone said about the former Olympic and world champion, who also won the All England title eight times.