Updated: July 29, 2021 1:04:20 pm
Nandu Natekar, Indian badminton’s grand old Bard of the Backhand, passed away in Pune of age-related medical complications on Wednesday.
Known for politely stepping back from tennis – at which he was considerably proficient in juniors, and being content in his stroke-filled, versatile game, Natekar would, courteously again, refuse to allow manic pursuit of fitness to meddle with his flair and finesse.
A six-time National champion, India’s second quarterfinalist at All England, many-time Thomas Cupper and a former World No 4, Nandkumar Mahadev Natekar would play the sport on his own terms, packing in singles, doubles and mixed all into a day.
The sorcerer from Sangli, is survived by his three children – two daughters and a son, and leaves behind a legacy that traces back badminton’s earliest days in India.
Having turned his back on tennis – admittedly after losing a junior National to Ramanathan Krishnan – Natekar would immerse himself into a sport that was more accessible in Sangli with many courts. Lesser known is the fact that watching four-time All England champ Wong Peng Soon and other Malaysians might’ve sealed the deal in favour of shuttle, as Natekar was mesmerised by the legends who pit-stopped to play in Bombay, where Natekar studied at Ruia College.
Over the years PJ Hindu Gymkhana became his home court – where his high serves would go through the rafters of the timber roof. And Bombay Gymkhana and CCI his competition arenas, even as the mosaic tiled floorings of the Community Centre at the end of Delhi’s Panchkuiyan Road, hosted one of his best National title wins against Trilok Nath Seth.
Banners announcing “Please watch World No 5 Natekar vs No 8 TN Seth” would attract huge crowds in the capital.
Compliments galore for backhand
When former CWG medallist Dinesh Khanna first saw Natekar play arriving in Delhi from Amritsar, he was awestruck by the backhand, considering the norm was to go overhead. “There was such fluency, I decided I wanted that in my repertoire,” he recalls.
Leroy D’Sa who watched him play it endless hours said the backhand was an extension of his immense control over the shuttle. “There was no power or speed in it. It saved him a lot of energy, and helped him outclass physically stronger and faster players. Noone could tell where it would land,” D’Sa says.
Former national player, statemate and close confidante, Asif Parpia found his unassuming senior, 17 years older, tougher to beat than Suresh Goel. “We tried to emulate his footwork and anticipation. Naturally we failed,” he guffaws. Parpia remembers the Malaysian Peng Soon getting stuck into Natekar’s backhand.
“That one match he pinged him back on the backhand and exhausted him,” hesays about the loss. Natekar didn’t budge though. “Look he never trained (fitness), he only played. He could play whole evening. He wouldn’t take one step extra than was needed. That economy of movement was something else.
All of us adored him even if he lost,” Parpia says. “He believed in playing opponents on their strengths, his thinking was he could feed them on their weapon and frustrate them when the favourite shots didn’t work,” he recalls.
The soft spoken man retreated into music (Bhimsen Joshi) and golf, post retirement, though he would travel for Masters. As Prakash Padukone and P Gopichand, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu emerged, Natekar would enjoy watching their games, but keep his counsel on happenings in the sport.
“He enjoyed watching the new shuttlers play, but his idea of watching a match was working out how he would’ve tackled the player himself,” Parpia adds.
He did admit to Khanna once that he might not have lasted long in modern badminton and its demand on the body with hours of fitness.
Natekar enjoyed a good scrap though. “Once at the Hyderabad nationals when he was older and our manager, he suddenly came picked up my racquet and declared ‘aaj tere saath khelta hoo'” Parpia recalls. They’d beat the fancied Ghouse brothers that day.
One another time, he partnered Atul Premnarayan and left him watching agape. “He told Atul, you serve and go stand in that back corner. I ll handle the rest.” Then the backhands started whirring away.