Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Nandu Natekar — the sorcerer who used the racket like a magic wand
Nandu Natekar's matches through the 1950s at the CCI and Bombay Gymkhana had salivating spectators queuing up for tickets overnight, with several having to be turned away because there was just no more space in the playing hall.
Editor's Note: Owing to the coronavirus outbreak, all sporting action across the globe stand suspended or cancelled. The crisis, however, presents us with an opportunity to step back, rethink, and write on sports differently. In line with this thought, we are starting a series of profiles on India's illustrious badminton stars. The articles, penned by Shirish Nadkarni, promise to take you on a nostalgia trip while touching upon the lesser known facets from the lives of the past masters.
One of the most pleasurable discussions that Indian badminton lovers can indulge in is to determine who is the greatest badminton player that this country has produced. Opinion would likely swing between Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, the only two Indians to win the prestigious All-England Championships — in 1980 and 2001, respectively.
For the older generation who have witnessed top-quality badminton in the 1950s and 1960s, there would be a third contender whom they would stoutly consider a shade above Prakash and Gopichand. For those who were privileged to watch Nandu Natekar (today, just six weeks shy of his 87th birthday) during his heyday, there can never again be a player who created so much magic with a racket and a shuttlecock.
There was sorcery in Natekar’s wrists, and spectators marvelled at the pedigree of his strokes, the deception and accuracy which came naturally to him. There was nary a trace of the brute force employed by the Europeans and Americans; he was more like the Ranjitsinhji of cricket. A flick of the wrist was akin to the waving of a magician’s wand; and yet another opponent would be jerked around the court like a puppet on a string.
What a wide repertoire of strokes he had, and what exquisite control over them! With the heavy Maxply Dunlop wooden-framed racket that he used during his heyday, in sharp contra-distinction to the ultra-light, hi-tech metal-alloy frames of today, he could send the shuttle to the exact spot he wanted.
"There is something special about certain delicate strokes in badminton,” Natekar says. “Once the shuttle comes up in the air from a serve, it can be hit back in so many different ways and in so many different directions. Everything depends on the skill of the player, and his manner of execution. In tennis, there can be only two or three alternative returns against service, but in badminton, the spots where a return can be hit, and the ways of hitting it, are far more.”
And yet, badminton almost lost Natekar to tennis, a game which he claims to have always enjoyed more than the shuttle sport. Had it not been for the fact that he lost the 1951-52 National junior final to none other than Ramanathan Krishnan, India might not have had two consummate artists in as many sports. The disappointment of losing that national final made him turn more to badminton.
Natekar’s was such a cool and graceful style! It started with the service itself — a clean, beautiful swing that sent the bird soaring to the back of the opposite court, to come down almost vertically on a spot a couple of inches from the baseline. In doubles play, it was an equally clean, easy action that propelled the shuttle barely an inch over the net and made it very hard to `tap’.
The man’s smash never had much power, but was perfectly directed to the opponent’s waist or the armpit of the playing hand. Those who have played the game well will understand the value of this technique. Even a half-smash to the middle body of the opponent is very difficult to get back. Natekar made the best of players look foolish as they tried to twist away from the shuttle that seemed, by some Oriental legerdemain, to be aimed at their midriffs!
And his own defence was so organised that the bird went back with minimum fuss — even when it was hit by the likes of Hammergaard Hansen, a Danish player reputed to have the hardest smash of his time; it was known worldwide as `Hansen’s Hammer’ and the Dane could break the shuttle with his raw power.
It was the tight defence of Natekar and Manohar Bopardikar that took them to the National title in 1958, while the Natekar-Chandrakant Deoras combine took the national crown three times out of four years between 1960 and ’63, mainly because they could get so many shuttles back.
Natekar’s control at the net was legendary, both from near the net and from the backcourt. At the net, there was the tight dribble that had the shuttle, more often than not, like the pet dog, “rolling over and playing dead”. From the backcourt, the drops and slices dipped sharply, falling well within the service line and dragging an opponent all the way up to the net.
The backhand was considered the best in the world in the 1950s. Every international player worth his salt had a healthy respect for the variety that Natekar could produce from that flank. Not so a speedy, bouncy little Malayan by the name of Eddie Choong, who had come to Bombay with his brother David to participate in a tournament at the Bombay Gymkhana.
Eddie, an All-England champion in his time, had a limited array of strokes, but exercised great control over them. He almost always managed to take the overhead shot in preference to the backhand. His ploy was to prolong the rallies and let his own prodigious stamina weigh in the balance.
On the eve of his meeting with Natekar, his brother and doubles partner David asked a bevy of Natekar admirers, with rhetoric in his tone, “Your Natekar has good backhand, yes? You must see Natekar backhand tomorrow, and what Eddie does to it!”
And, sure enough, the next day, Eddie directed every shuttle deep to the Natekar deep backhand corner. Bouncing all over the court like a football, he retrieved every one of Natekar’s delectable backhand shots, sending the bird soaring back to the self-same corner. The idea was to turn Natekar’s strength into a weakness.
It seemed initially as if Eddie was playing into Natekar’s hands when the Indian garnered several points with wristy deception, even making Eddie stumble and fall in the process. But slowly and surely, the Malayan turned the tide. The spectators could see that the steam going out of the Indian’s strokes and saw him pant with exertion.
As the rallies got progressively longer, and the shuttle kept going excruciatingly back to that deep backhand corner, the game began turning. Eddie extinguished the lead that Natekar had built up, forged ahead and won the game narrowly. The second game, however, was a formality, as Natekar could barely raise his exhausted arm.
It was an important lesson for the great Natekar, and provided the one reason why he never got higher than No.4 in the world in his prime. Indeed, within India, he feared no one other than the ‘returning machine’, Dinesh Khanna, who repeatedly out-rallied him, and beat him on the strength of far superior staying power.
Never a stickler for achieving peak physical fitness, Natekar lost some key matches at international level because he was simply too tired towards the middle of a long encounter to take advantage of his rival’s weak shots. No less a shuttling legend than Wong Peng Soon of Malaya said of Nandu that, had he improved his fitness, there would have been no player in the world to touch him.
When one looks at the manner players these days are so uptight about their equipment, worrying about the correct balance and grip size on their rackets, it appears laughable to note that Natekar rarely played with his own racket. He would request someone sitting at courtside to lend him a racket, heft and test it for `feel’, hit a few shots with it; and, if he liked it, would carry on playing with it as if it had been his favourite racket for some time.
So acute was his perception of the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents that, even with a rival he was encountering for the first time, he would hit a few tosses, a few drops, a few half-paced smashes to the lines, then to the body — and he was ready to exploit the person’s weaknesses to the hilt. It was uncanny how he managed to do it every time.
"I won the Gwalior Nationals in 1953, playing with Davinder Mohan’s racket,” recounts Natekar. “It was a Maxply Dunlop, which a lot of the top players used in those days, but it had `Ladies’ model’ written on the shaft. Perhaps it was marginally lighter than their gents’ model, but I really liked its feel, and requested Davinder to let me play the entire tournament with it.”
On the court, he was a thorough gentleman, never throwing a tantrum or questioning a linesman’s or umpire’s decision. His deportment and manners on court were always impeccable; and most of the time, he would let his racket do all the talking.
Natekar played the game in the best possible spirit — and the badminton-loving public loved him. They could not get enough of the 1933-born lad who came to Mumbai in 1949 as a 16-year-old from the small interior Maharashtra town of Sangli, specifically to further his badminton career.
At the PJ Hindu Gymkhana in 1954, spectators watching him win one of the umpteen titles he bagged at what had become his home court spontaneously carried out an impromptu collection, which was named the `Natekar Fund’, to gather sufficient funds to send him to the All-England Championships that year.
The 21-year-old Natekar would not have been flattered had he challenged seriously for the world’s most coveted title, but he was stopped at the quarter-final stage by the Danish power-hitter Hansen, known better for his fearsome doubles combination with Finn Kobbero. The cold of London in February-March and lack of acclimatisation worked against the Indian, and he was nowhere near his best during that encounter.
However, his clashes through the 1950s at the CCI and Bombay Gymkhana with the likes of Kobbero, Eddie, Erland Kops, et al had salivating spectators queuing up for tickets overnight, with several having to be turned away because there was just no more space in the playing hall. Those kind of crowds are simply not to be seen these days at even international competitions held in any part of India.
Natekar’s best year in the Nationals came at Amritsar in 1961 when he took home all three titles at stake — the singles at the expense of Indonesian Nona (six Indonesians participated in the Indian Nationals that year), the men’s doubles in tandem with Chandrakant Deoras and the mixed with Manda Kelkar.
His all-round skills were put to greatest use in the Thomas Cup matches, in which he represented India for over a decade. Nandu was the bulwark around which the Indian team’s performance revolved as he invariably played four of the five matches in each tie.
There is more to Natekar’s persona than just badminton. A great lover of music, he counts vocalists Lata Mangeshkar and the late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi among his friends. After the enforced end of his 60-year love affair with badminton and tennis, thanks to rickety knees, he started swinging a mean club on the golf course, and worked for a while towards bringing his handicap down to single digits. Poor health over the past couple of years has severely limited his golfing outings.
The Natekar family is one of the few to have given to Indian sport a father-and-son combination that has played at international level in two different sports. Like Leander Paes went into tennis even as father Vece had excelled in hockey, Gaurav Natekar has done Davis Cup tennis duty for India which father Nandu so nearly ended up doing. Tennis’ loss, in the latter instance, was badminton’s gain.
The writer is a former veterans' world champion (50+ age group men's doubles, Kuala Lumpur 2004), an eight-time National champion, and a 13-time Maharashtra state veterans' doubles title holder.
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