Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Aparna Popat - Consummate artist who became domestic legend
An unmatched talent in the domestic circuit, Aparna Popat holds the distinction of being the only Indian woman shuttler to win nine consecutive Nationals (1997-2005).
Nine badminton national singles titles in an unbroken reel between 1997 and 2005 lie to the credit of Aparna Popat. It is a feat unparalleled in the annals of women’s badminton in India; among the men, it had been achieved earlier only by the legendary Prakash Padukone, from 1971-72 to 1979-80.
But, unlike Prakash, who was beaten in his tenth National final by Syed Modi, and could not recapture the National title despite several more attempts, Aparna remained undefeated national champion, although she never officially announced her retirement.
It could be said that the genesis of Aparna’s feat lay in the year 1993; the event was the Junior Badminton Nationals, held in Pune. A 15-year-old slip of a girl from Bombay not only won the Under-16 sub-junior singles and doubles titles, but she also ended runner-up to Neelima Choudhury in the Under-19 junior singles.
Aparna's performance enthused Thomas Cupper and freelance journalist Sanjay Sharma to lavish fulsome praise on the youngster in a November 1993 article: “Considering Aparna’s age – just 15 – it may seem rather presumptuous to suggest that she will, in the next three years or so, emerge as the best female player this country has or will produce,” Sharma wrote.
“But I sincerely feel that, in a very short time to come, considering her incredible statistical success record at the junior level in Indian badminton, she will become synonymous with perfection as far as the country’s badminton image at the world level is concerned.”
Sharma was right. With her vast repertoire of accurate, deceptive strokes, gazelle-like movement, and impeccable courtcraft, Aparna was to comprehensively dominate the period between 1997 and 2005.
During the decade that she reigned as the undisputed queen of Indian badminton, Aparna was so much ahead of all other women in the country that she suffered just three defeats, including one to the player who was to take over her mantle as India’s best – Saina Nehwal – at what was the fag end of her career, and when a wrist injury, that was to put her temporarily out of the game, had flared up.
Aparna was also to be the backbone of India’s Uber Cup squad over five campaigns, leading the country on four occasions. If the highest-ranking she achieved at the world level was just 16, it was because Indian players at the time were not sponsored either privately or by the government to participate in the number of overseas tournaments required to boost ranking.
The manner in which she came into badminton, and how she was kneaded into the champion’s mould by one supremely dedicated individual and by her own single-minded efforts, is a story guaranteed to induce amazement, if not incredulity.
Born into a moderately well-off family on 18 January, 1978, Aparna started playing at the age of eight-and-a-half at the Cricket Club of India (CCI). It was a time when she didn’t know how to hold a racket, and knew nothing at all about badminton.
“I had gone to the CCI to join the coaching there, when Anil uncle (former Maharashtra state singles champion Anil Pradhan) saw me and asked me to come to the Sachivalaya (now Mantralaya) Gymkhana the next morning,” she recalls. “He made it amply clear that he would only coach me if he saw something special in me; else, he would pass me on to another coach who ran the summer camp.”
So Aparna went the next day to the Sachivalaya Gymkhana, where Pradhan made her do some forward, backward and side running, but did not ask her to hit a single shuttle. Within five minutes, he had told Aparna’s mother that he was going to coach the girl and turn her into a champion. He told her he wanted a ward who did not even know how to hold a racket, so he could train her from absolute scratch.
The left-handed Pradhan went on to play with Aparna seven days a week, 365 days a year, with no such thing as a weekly, national or festival holiday. “Mind you, Anil uncle did not bring up this kind of discipline as a pre-requisite for handling my coaching,” says Aparna. “In fact, for the first three months, he did not let me even get on to the court. He made me do a lot of general exercises, footwork, wall practice, made me watch a lot of badminton, and so on.”
The youngster took it all in her stride. Not that she did not feel impatient to actually play, but she realised with a maturity beyond her years that she was learning fast, and so, let him have his way. “I did go and hit a few shuttles with the other CCI members when he was not around,” she remembers. “But he was extremely strict, and insisted that my contact of the shuttle be perfect before I started learning different strokes.”
Pradhan was strictly a one-on-one coach. He was clear in his mind that he did not wish to conduct mass coaching or produce champions on an assembly-line; he said he would produce one champion. And he imparted the how’s, when’s and why’s of all his deceptive strokes to his ward.
Within a year and a half of starting training with Pradhan, Aparna played at the age of ten in her first inter-school tournament, which she promptly won – and went on winning for another three years.
The following year, she played the entire under-12 circuit at district, state, and national level. Around this time, she played in a mixed handicap tournament at the CCI, which proved to be one of the highlights of her career, as she really stood out. She played against boys, girls, men, and women; and bagged the title. According to Pradhan, that was the time when he felt she showed real promise of becoming the best in the business.
“I knew Apu (as he called her) had it in her because she played most of that tournament with a negative handicap,” says Pradhan. “She was stroking well, but I wanted to see if she could handle the mental aspect of the game – when you start a game with a minus score. And she came through with flying colours.”
Aparna did not lose a single match in the under-12 category in 1989. But the following year, when she had to go up a category into the under-15 section, she lost nine times in a row to Nirmala Kotnis, who was two years older.
“I was very dejected,” says Aparna. “But Anil uncle told me, 'Give me six months, and I assure you that you will be beating Nirmala consistently. It is just that you are not physically strong enough yet.' And sure enough, less than six months after that, I beat Nirmala in the sub-junior final, which was played in the morning of the day of the finals.”
Nirmala, for reasons best known to her, conceded a walk-over to Aparna the same evening in the juniors’ final. But when they clashed again at the state championships a few days later, Aparna handed out a love-game each to Nirmala in the morning and evening in two different matches.
The regimen that Pradhan followed involved more on-court playing than structured physical exercises. The absence of physical training was more because the starting time for JB Petit School was 7.30 am, leaving no time for anything other than getting up and rushing to reach class on time.
“Perhaps the only physical training I would do is ten sit-ups or ten push-ups in the evening after playing!” smiles Aparna. “Anil uncle felt that physical training was less important at that stage of my career than actual playing. He did make me train during the summer holidays, giving me a set of exercises and running to do on my own time. Everything I did was under his guidance. But I must admit I used to bunk a lot of the physical training; I found it very boring!”
Says Pradhan, “Apu was so stubborn; if she felt her stroke was right, she would keep on playing the same way even when I would tell her that it was wrong. She asked me so many questions, I really had to convince her I was right. She kept me on my toes all the while, both on and off the court! But her biggest plus point was that she was able to maintain her cool even under duress.”
“Every year, Anil uncle would set a goal for me; and every year, I would better it,” says Aparna, with a modicum of complacency.
In addition, at every match that Aparna played, it was not just her strokes that mattered, but also her on-court and off-court behaviour. Pradhan would monitor everything; and if he thought she was flying too high, he would bring her down with a crash.
“I was not allowed to bounce a racket on the court, question line or umpiring decisions, throw tantrums of any sort,” says Aparna. “He would simply tell me, 'If this is how you want to behave on the court, don’t come for coaching from tomorrow!'
“Even small things like court etiquette mattered. 'If your opponent is ready to serve, and you have the shuttle in your hand, you will not push it under the net to her; you will pass it to her properly’, he would tell me. Looking back at that training today, I feel all that was very important.”
Mumbai journalist RK Bowrie wrote of the then 14-year-old in December 1992: “For one so young, Aparna displays a level of maturity far above her age. An extremely shy person, she is a girl of few words. Her racket, however, speaks most eloquently for her skills. Extremely agile, she plays her strokes with a high degree of control. Above all, Aparna is endowed with the concentration so essential for one to sustain one’s play. Nothing ever seems to ruffle her when a match is on.”
Aparna went on to play two senior Nationals while she was still a junior – in 1995-96 and 1996-97 – and ended runner-up on both occasions, once to PVV Lakshmi (later Pullela Gopichand’s wife) and once to Manjusha Pawangadkar (later Mrs Kanwar). Her first senior national title was as a 19-year-old in the 1997-98 Nationals in Hyderabad, when she downed the defending champion Manjusha in straight games.
“When I was 14, I reached the final of the under-19; and when I was 17, I reached the women’s singles final,” says Aparna. “I won the senior title at the age of 18, beating Manjusha and Lakshmi to avenge my losses to them in the previous two National finals. I beat Saina Nehwal in Bangalore in the 2005 Nationals, when she was still an up-and-coming junior. And then she beat me the following year.”
It was so much like history repeating itself, with a precocious teenager challenging the established names, and making a mark for herself. It had happened earlier with Ami Ghia-Shah, then with Madhumita Goswami-Bisht, Aparna; and then, Saina when the Hissar-born Hyderabad girl was just 16.
In 1994, after completing her Class 10, Aparna moved from Mumbai to the Prakash Padukone Academy in Bangalore, where she was to stay and train for the next six years. Under the eagle eyes of the maestro himself, and coaches Vimal Kumar (a two-time national singles champion), VR Beedu and Balachandra, she took giant strides on the way to becoming a force to reckon with at world level.
The bagging of the silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Silkeborg, Denmark, in 1996 was one of the highlights of her stint under Prakash. She might well have taken the title, but her game unexpectedly unravelled in the final against China’s Yu Hua.
“I was unseeded and not expected to reach anywhere near the final,” she says. “It was a fantastic tournament; and more than that, it was great fun. In the Indian team were Abhinn Shyam Gupta, Nikhil Kanetkar and Sampada Shetye, and we all gelled well together. I count it as one of the most memorable tournaments of my career.”
That tournament was a sort of turning point in Aparna’s career. She realised that one could play well at the international level with whatever limited resources were made available to Indian players; and that no one even at that level was unbeatable.
In 1998, Aparna bagged the Commonwealth Games silver medal in Kuala Lumpur, in the face of top opposition like Julia Mann of England and Wong Mew Choo of Malaysia, who was to become the legendary Lee Chong Wei’s wife in later years.
In the semi-final of that competition, Aparna squandered a match-point at 12-all in the second game against second-seeded Julia Mann of England, lost the game at 12-13; and then went down 3-10, match-point, in the decider. At that point, she regained her focus and reeled off nine points to stand at match-point, 12-10. Julia clawed a further point to come up to 11-12, but the Indian managed to hold on to take the heart-stopping match at 13-12.
Aparna lost to Kelly Morgan of Wales in the final. The first game was tight, and went over the extra points at 13-10, but the second game was a one-sided 11-5 affair. Aparna’s silver was one of four medals that India bagged at the Games – Pullela Gopichand’s bronze in the men’s singles, the men’s team silver and women’s team bronze being the other three.
Over the next three years, Aparna remained unbeaten on the Indian domestic circuit. But by the time the 2000-01 Jaipur Nationals rolled around, it appeared that others, like Jwala Gutta, were beginning to catch up. After losing a close match to the Andhra left-hander in the team championship, Aparna turned the tables on her rival, muffled Jwala’s big smash, and administered a 11-2, 11-5 thrashing in the Open.
“One defeat in four years – and people start believing that you can be beaten,” she says, of those days. “That’s the kind of pressure I had to play with, knowing that I could not afford to lose within the country after playing at a certain level.”
In the 2005-06 Bangalore Nationals, Aparna won a record ninth consecutive singles crown, beating a sprightly up-and-coming teen named Saina Nehwal. That result was to be reversed in the Asian Satellite tournament that was played the following year, when Saina’s strength, youth, and superior fitness proved too much for the ageing Aparna. A wrist injury prevented her from even attempting a tenth successive National crown.
“I did play for nearly 18 months with a bad wrist, and went on winning my matches,” she says. “But it became increasingly more painful, and I ended up playing at barely 70 percent of my game since I could not hit certain strokes. I could not even serve freely. Also, my fitness suffered because I could not do any upper-body exercises.”
Through the course of her career, Aparna was such a swift learner that she rarely repeated a mistake. Having lost a close three-game match to Wong Mew Choo of Malaysia during the Uber Cup rounds in Kuala Lumpur (at 8-11 in the decider), she turned the tables on her adversary in the Syed Modi Memorial tournament in Lucknow, conceding less than five points in each of the two games they played.
“I just played a different strategy the second time round,” Aparna says. “My main problem overseas was that I was physically not strong enough. Large halls always put me at a disadvantage, because they were very slow and I was not strong enough to send the shuttle back to the baseline whenever I needed to. I could see gaps on the court with all my rivals, and I would know what I had to do, but I could not execute it because of lack of strength.”
If there is some regret over aims not achieved in her career, it is in India’s Uber Cup campaigns. Aparna led the Indian team in four of the five Uber Cups she played, but the country could never progress beyond the zonal qualifying league stage.
Nevertheless, among the more satisfying moments of Aparna’s Uber Cup career was her effort in gaining for India a narrow 3-2 win over Thailand in the 2006 zonal qualifiers in Jaipur. That tie, incidentally, had marked Saina Nehwal’s successful Uber Cup debut, as she won the tense fifth match in two well-contested games, after the two countries had been locked 2-2 after two singles and two doubles.
For Aparna, fond memories of her Uber Cup campaigns are marred by what happened in Delhi in the year 2000. An excellent outing was followed by a three-month period that Aparna considers the darkest of her life – she was suspended for that period after a routine urine test threw up the banned substance phenol propolamine, that had entered her system through an over-the-counter (OTC) preparation, D’Cold.
“At 22, I was at the peak of my career, and playing very well,” she reminisces. “My world ranking at the time was 23, and it was improving all the time. But at the camp before the Uber Cup matches, I picked up a terrible cold and kept getting fever. Prakash uncle asked for special permission to retain me in Bangalore to recover, and join the team later.
“I did recover somewhat, but the fever again flared up at Mumbai airport, on the way to Delhi. I went to the pharmacy at the terminal, and the guy there suggested this OTC preparation D’Cold. I played in the tournament, and played really well. And then the dope test threw up this banned drug – which has subsequently been taken off the banned list, mind you!”
It took tremendous strength of character to come back to the courts and resume her career. But come back, she did; and started winning tournaments again, as of yore. But her ranking had plummeted from 23 to 87; and she almost missed qualification to the Sydney Olympics that year, making the draw by the skin of her teeth.
Wonderfully as Aparna played for two decades, she did not compromise on her career apart from the sport. During her halcyon days on the badminton courts, she contented herself with a bachelor’s degree in Commerce, but subsequently, she hunted down a master’s degree in Business Administration through a correspondence course.
Resigning from Indian Oil in 2015, the nine-time former national champion joined Olympians’ Association of India (OAI) as Executive Director, and officially received permission from the International Olympians’ Association to tag the letters ‘Oly’ to her name, in the same manner as a doctorate.
Aparna discharged her duties at OAI for a year and a half before the lure of the shuttle dragged her back to the courts in the guise of a coach, and as a highly respected badminton commentator for Star Sports.
“I enjoy performing both these functions, since I get to give back something to the game that had become my life for all of three decades, and also get sufficient time to look after my six-year-old daughter, Kyra,” says Aparna, now 42.
“To be paid good money for talking about the intricacies and technical details of strokes seen during matches, and also for imparting advanced-level coaching to budding quality players – well, these form the icing on the cake!"
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