Like the westerly winds that bypass it every so often, India’s badminton breeze had skipped Tamil Nadu entirely all these years. Neighbouring states Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka had led India’s global success in singles, while Kerala traditionally nursed a vibrant doubles culture and remained a feeder for the paired event.But now, Tamil Nadu is catching up with its illustrious neighbours: three of the four boys’ singles players picked for the Asian Junior Championship hail from the state. India’s big hope in women’s doubles also comes from there.
Tamil Nadu’s Sankar Muthuswamy, K Sathish Kumar and Sidhanth Gupta, all boys’ singles players, and top girls’ doubles junior VS Varshini are headed to Suzhou, China, for the July 20-28 Asian juniors meet.
For long, the hub of chess and tennis in which it boasted great depth, and the fulcrum of squash and table tennis, Tamil Nadu is now tossing up talent in badminton, which prompts Chennai’s top coach Jerry Martin to say, “Seniors will take time, but Tamil Nadu is the best state in juniors currently in India.”
He credits this spurt in numbers and quality to cash prizes at district and state meets for players and monetary incentives starting from Rs 25,000 per month for coaches producing players. “Cash prizes are performance-based, and while the state never had facilities – courts or coaches – earlier, the success of Saina (Nehwal) and (PV) Sindhu has led to hundreds of children taking up the sport in the last few years. Girls outnumber boys three to one,” Jerry says.
He sees another eye-popping trend. “South Indians don’t take risks at all, so sacrificing studies for sport was unheard of. Now suddenly, they all want to get into Open School, and train long hours in badminton. Parents themselves come up with that option. For kids, badminton is trendy, carrying that kitbag is stylish,” he laughs.
Jerry played at the state and national level, quit in 1993 for coaching, but took up five courts at Kodambakkam only in the last few years where he runs elite (two courts) and beginners (three) batches. Over the years, he got used to receiving impromptu invites from PMK politician Anbumani Ramadoss, who would fancy a game of shuttle at the Madras Race Course courts in Guindy whenever he could sneak in time.
In 2017, Ramadoss started his second term as president of the Tamil Nadu Badminton Association, but he’d insisted on incentives for players and coaches from much earlier. “He carries the badminton kitbag wherever he goes and is crazy about playing the sport. His idea to pay the coaches well really paid off,” Jerry says.
Sankar Muthuswamy, 15, who trains on the 6-court Fireball academy at Annanagar in Chennai, is the youngest of the lot, a left-handed prodigy and currently India’s finest junior retriever known for his speed and accuracy. “I was first interested in outdoor sports and thought I’d pick tennis. But I found the indoors more comfortable and grew to like badminton very quickly. Now, the competition within Tamil Nadu is very high, and we are as good as players from states playing for many years,” he insists.
Varshini is a naturally attacking stroke-maker from Madurai, tipped to rise on the doubles scene, after inheriting a fair bit of explosive power from her father Vishwanath, a volleyball player. Sidhanth Gupta is a cerebral chameleon on court – capable of adapting to offence or defence and playing varied styles within one 21-point game. Sathish Kumar started under coach Venkatesh in Coimbatore. Known for his metronomic consistency, assured footwork, his cross-court smash and wristy deception at the net with low retrieves, the tall hard hitter, 18, followed his cousin Arunkumar onto the court. Fitness is his forte.
Tamil Nadu rarely figured on the national scene with just three podium finishers at the junior levels in known memory: there was Kanhailal in the late 1970s, P Vadana winning silver in the sub-juniors and Ajith Haridas who was junior national doubles champion in 1991, the same year that P Gopichand won his first junior singles crown.
Now, Ajith helms an ambitious programme to raise champions at the state-of-the-art Hatsun academy in Thiruthangal near Madurai – where Sidhanth Gupta trains. Jerry Martin and coach Aravind (who trained Sankar) have training facilities in Chennai, while the trio of coaches Venkatesh, Shibu and Mahendra are churning out impressive juniors from Coimbatore. Badminton is witnessing an upsurge in all three major cities.
According to Aravind, “I’m seeing a lot of tennis talent moving to badminton. After years of trying at tennis, badminton is looking more realistic and less costly because Indians are seen competing at highest levels.” Sankar’s father had played tennis, but didn’t think twice before enrolling daughter Laxmi Priyanka and Sankar into badminton.
The tamil Nadu story is encouraging also because the state’s insistence on demanding birth certificates that are verified, and almost always issued within a month of the birth – unlike the several delayed ones in age-fraud cases. “For a long time, our boys and girls would lose to overage players. But now our quality is so good that Tamil Nadu players are consistently beating much older shuttlers relying on better fitness and technique,” Jerry explains.
Priorities are on track – almost every promising shuttler in the state is seeking fitness support from institutes like Quantum Leap Performance (QLP) of former cricket trainer Ramji Srinivasan, or the sophisticated strength conditioning programs at YMCA, led by trainer Riyaz. The focus is not merely on pretty strokes, but peak fitness, with agility and endurance workouts starting as early as the age of 10.
Chennai had once been content gently applauding Saina when she won her first Krishna Khaitan Memorial (India’s top junior event) title there before the tournament moved to Chandigarh. India’s former junior coach Sanjeev Sachdeva ran a rudimentary training centre with no facilities at University Union in Chetpet 15 years ago. Youngster Aditya Elango was much touted at that time, but plateaued unlike a Kidambi Srikanth whose stock rose with top titles.
While Karan Rajan (who broke into the Top 100) brought Tamil Nadu its first ever senior singles title, winning the minor Guatemala Future series, and finishing runner-up at an International Series in Lagos, Sankar Muthusamy brought happy news winning a bronze in the U15 singles at the Asian championships. Tamil Nadu now boasts three shuttlers in the under-19 Top 10 boys’ singles rankings, while Rhuthvik Sanjeevi, Kavin Thangam and Sidhanth are quickly rising among under-17s.
Ajith Haridas, who reached the national junior singles semifinals in 1992 but detoured away from badminton, recalls the struggle back then to play at Corporation Stadium where ballot boxes would be stored. Setting up the cutting edge Hatsun academy near Virudunagar district, funded by dairy behemoth Hatsun Agro, Ajith says that the residential facility’s no-distraction environs and scientific approach will soon yield dividends.
“We’re looking at fitness from a very early age. Our players are not going to lose on stamina. We’re aiming for top-tier endurance, strength, agility, and quickness. I tell my shuttlers they have to be like gymnasts in the lower body,” he explains. Top nutritionists design their diets from as early as 10 and the early hours are devoted to meditation, with sports psychology and healing included into the daily programme.
Hatsun head RG Chandramogan, who has nurtured many brands, insists that results will be seen in the next 10 years, aiming at 2028. “Both our All England champions came from south India – so I always wondered why we in Tamil Nadu couldn’t produce a champion,” says the tennis-loving dairy moghul who saw no charm in investing in cricket, but loved a game of badminton himself.
Most coaches in the state are aware that the nous and experience that comes with playing internationally is missing amongst them, and their wards stumble at familiar hurdles – lacking in belief and confidence.
“There’s inhibitions in our kids; they aren’t very proactive on court. And taking risk and aggression is missing,” Ajith explains, adding that game-wise, the mostly good retrievers are slowly building attacking arsenals as their shoulders build strength.
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