One would expect it to be a really special feeling.
For years, Parupalli Kashyap was stuck in a rut. Try as he might, his ranking remained stuck between the 20-30 ranking slots in the Badminton World Federation world rankings. Between 2009 and 2012 – he was just a player who made up the numbers – there would be the odd upset; there would be the odd run to the latter stages of the tournament but mostly there was disappointment.
So when Kashyap finally made it into the top 10 of the BWF rankings (he is currently ranked 9th and the first Indian male to get into the top ten since Pullela Gopichand), one would expected him to be overjoyed, to be over the moon so to say, to believe that like Saina Nehwal, he has arrived.
But his reaction was surprising. ‘So how does it feel to be in the top 10 players of the world,’ we asked. Kashyap’s answer was: ‘It’s okay.’
Just that. No talk of how difficult it was to get there or how he deserved it or even how he was getting better. Just a simple, ‘it’s okay.’ To most people being one of the ten best ‘anything’ in the world would represent a sneaking feeling of greatness. But for Kashyap, it was just a sign of him finally realising his potential and he had waited too long for it to happen.
“It’s not enough to be in the top 10. You have to win tournaments. And when I talk tournaments, I mean the Super Series – the big ones. Even if I am number 1 and I don’t win those... it doesn’t matter,” Kashyap told Firstpost from Hyderabad.
“When I first started playing, it was very tough. I was a young kid but the likes of Chetan Anand, Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhat were very strong. I would beat them every once in a while but I wasn’t consistent, I wasn’t sure and perhaps there was an element of fear when I went up against them. And that’s changed in the last couple of years – qualifying for the Olympics helped. Qualifying helped and then reaching the quarterfinals made an even bigger difference to my mental state. I started to believe and that is the difference now,” he further added.
Kashyap believes the catalyst for the change was Gopi Sir. Before the Olympics, he changed the world number nine’s training schedule and that put his career graph on a different trajectory. You can feel the emotional connection even as you talk to Kashyap. Just after he won the Nationals at Srinagar in September 2012, Kashyap walked over to Gopichand and broke down in tears. It was a touching moment.
“We are very, very close. I have trained all my life there, with him. And in between, things changed. I trained with Bhaskar Babu Sir and some others but even then I knew that Gopi Sir was watching from the sidelines.”
It’s not hard to imagine a coach and players having fights. But when the coach happens to the best in the country, it can throw your game a little out of whack. And it happened to Kashyap as well.
“First things first, I thought the whole thing was blown out of proportion. I do share an emotional attachment with him but then there are times when you feel things need to be different. It happens in all sports and to everyone. Some difference in opinion is normal. But we found the balance we needed – it took a while but lucky that we could.”
“Secondly, the Nationals were something that I wanted to win more than the All England or the World Championships. I wanted to be India’s national champion. Prakash (Padukone) Sir and Aparna (Popat) won a lot of national championships but they are known for their achievements in the international arena. But when I was coming up there was stiff competition at the national level too. I wanted to do this for myself.”
The break also gave Gopichand a chance to work out strategy for the men. He had figured out the coaching techniques for Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. But the innovation needed for the men’s game was missing.
“He thought for a long time about it and certain changes helped us. At the end of the day, coaching has to be for individuals – we all have different needs. For example, I needed to find consistency. I have an attacking game. I like to smash. My net game is okay but to be able to do that consistently I needed to raise my fitness levels. That was my base. Without fitness, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I have seen my rankings rise slowly from 25-30 to 14, 10 and now 9. And I am convinced that if I am fit, I can rise even higher. In the recent months, my performances are witness to that improvement. In every tournament, I reach the quarters or the semis. The first round losses aren’t that regular and for me, that is a real sign of improvement.”
“A changed schedule doesn’t mean spending more time on the courts, it’s about identifying things that you really to work on and then getting down to it.”
The other thing, Kashyap needed to do was get his diet right. We’ve seen the difference that a correct diet has made to the game of Novak Djokovic and for that Kashyap turned to Dr. More, who hails from Thane (near Mumbai).
“But here’s the thing. Dr. More’s advice really helped but this should be mandatory for everyone... even for the younger players. Lee Chong Wei (world number one) or Chen Long (world number two) will have four people helping him all the time with his schedule, diet, massage and mental conditioning. We need that too. Times have changed and we have to change too.”
Getting into the top ten is in itself a big victory but Kashyap realises that the real challenge is just beginning. Upto this point, Kashyap tried to avoid thinking of the Chinese but now they are right in front of him. He has no option but to take them on.
“When you are ranked in the top 30 to 15, you have strengths in your game but there are also weaknesses. Between 10-5, your allround game is good and you can adapt decently to different court conditions. But the guys in the top 5 are really good – it doesn’t matter if the shuttles are slow or if the arena has some drift, they will very quickly adjust to conditions. That’s what I need to do – and for that I need to get stronger... physically stronger.”
Preparation sets the top players apart from the rest but that isn't all. So if there was one thing, Kashyap could borrow from the games of Lee Chong Wei or Lin Dan and fit it into his game... what would it be?
“Heart. They never give up. Ever. Mentally, these guys are rock solid. Even if they are 10 points down, they believe that they can win the match. That’s the kind of confidence and self-belief I want. When I play a gold level tournament, I know I should win. When I play a Super Series tournament, I am not sure. I want to get rid of that fear.”