Anxious but motivated, Indian shuttlers gear up for badminton’s resumption

a man hitting a ball with a racket

© Provided by The Indian Express

Not many lead-up preparations to a Super 750 badminton tournament have involved learning how to make chicken-rice, like Subhankar Dey needed to during the lockdown when the World No 42 was stuck alone in an apartment in Navi Mumbai. Or worrying about whether playing badminton would qualify as a ‘worthy purpose’ while filling out the visa forms for Denmark, an anxiety that troubled Ajay Jayaram.

As badminton takes its first nervous steps towards international resumption at the Denmark Open, starting October 13, shuttlers are expected to reach Odense in various stages of preparedness. While those like Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen attempt to gain first mover’s confidence advantage, before the Olympic qualification efforts swamp their headspace in 2021, those like Ajay and Subhankar would like to shake off the rust in a season battered by cancellations since the All England.

“We’ve been training for months in Bengaluru with no sight of a tournament. When the withdrawals began, I sensed I could get an entry,” Ajay says, on the eve of his departure to Denmark. Lakshya, Srikanth and Subhankar flew out from Delhi late on Thursday. “Everyone’s going to be rusty in their match preparations,” Ajay says, “but also a lot more hungrier, so that should ensure good matches.”

As such everyone walks in blind about their form — albeit well-rested, which might see a few upsets. Dey starts against Jason Anthony Ho-Shue, and should he get past the Canadian, he has the chance to cancel out Srikanth’s run – subject to the Indian getting past English southpaw Toby Penty. The two Indians last met in February at Barcelona where Subhankar led Srikanth 19-14 in the opener, but left his opponent who won by the skin of his teeth, sheepishly saying, “How can you lose this match!”

The pandemic then hurricaned across the world, ending all badminton activity. It left Dey cooped up inside an unlikely flat at Vashi — stuck close to his Subhankar Dey Badminton Academy of 4 courts, a field and gym at the Navi Mumbai Sports Association. “Everything was shut initially as cases rose in Mumbai. I was getting by with some fitness work but mostly struggling to learn to cook. I’d call my sister on video calls and in 2-3 days she taught me how to make chicken and rice. It started with fixing the cooking gas in the house,” he says.

Camped in Mumbai’s outskirts for a couple of years running his academy with a pair of Indonesian sparrers, Subhankar would spend the duration of the lockdown with Zoom fitness lessons for his 40 odd wards. “I’d run outside sometimes, but it wasn’t enough. I’d gained weight and wasn’t sure I’d be able to perform to the optimum at Thomas Uber Cup. Then it got cancelled,” he says.

Dial-in dinners daily at Navi Mumbai had ensured ennui set in.

Dey would travel to Bengaluru thereafter and train under coach mentor Anup Sridhar. “After a month of training under him, I feel ready for a tournament,” he says.

Unlike India’s big names PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, travelling to Denmark was not an open choice for Subhankar Dey. “The decision was simple, straightforward for me. I don’t have funding from the Indian government like the TOPS players. My only salary comes from playing in the Danish League after the Denmark Open. If I don’t play, I’ll lose my sponsorship,” says the Top 50 shuttler who has lived several years in Denmark, making ends meet playing the league.

“I was motivated to travel for this, after seeing football and tennis start. Also, the Danish League has been happening for 2 months now,” he says. He has been tested 4 times — across Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and got his negative test before flying out. “Mask, shield is routine now while travelling. It’s going to be difficult for everyone for a day or so of quarantine. So everyone suffers,” he shrugs. “Should be ok after that. I just hope there’s no crowds allowed. I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says, unsure still of the protocols.

For Ajay Jayaram, the last 24 hours have been a scramble. He had a valid visa for 5 years, but was unsure if the pandemic had sent all prior border crossing guarantees into a flux. “I had the visa, but I needed to figure if they would accept our travel as “worthy purpose” because not everyone with visa is permitted to fly out. The Danish authorities were thankfully intimated and so that went through alright,” he says. He left testing to the very last, while news of him sneaking into the draw owing to pullouts came only late September.

“I got my negative test yesterday and then booked my tickets. So it’s been tough,” he says, having recovered from a back niggle only two weeks back. “I’ve been training for months, but logistically, it’s been tension-filled,” Ajay says. “Once we are in the tournament atmosphere things might feel ok. But till then no point pretending it’s all normal,” he says. While every shuttler had ample of time to prepare – Ajay ramped up his fitness in the two months complete lockdown at home, even as he painted on the canvas prolifically. Somewhere in this month’s of lull and sudden burst of activity, where even journeymen are wearying of the journey even before the flight takes off, the shuttle is hoping to finally take flight after several aborted attempts.

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