Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Sushila Kapadia — the extrovert who played with grace and aggression on court

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.

“She floats like a butterfly, and stings like a bee.”

One of Sushila Rege-Kapadia’s contemporaries and ardent admirers employed the famous description of three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s ring technique while describing her graceful, yet attacking, style of play on the badminton court.

“Sushila was nimble and light in her footwork, and possessed uncanny courtcraft and a sense of positioning,” says Ramesh Chadha, who played for Ruia College in the company of the legendary Nandu Natekar in the early-1950s, and went on to represent Maharashtra state.

For someone who claims she just “drifted” into the shuttle sport without initially being passionately fond of it, the willowy Sushila achieved a great deal – a total of eleven national titles in a 12-year long career between 1951 and 1963, and including the coveted triple crown – a sweep of the singles, doubles and mixed titles – as a 20 year old in only her second Nationals in Lucknow in 1952.

 Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Sushila Kapadia — the extrovert who played with grace and aggression on court

Sushila Kapadia. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni

Sushila’s haul from the Indian Nationals consisted of three singles (1952, ’53 and ’58), six women’s doubles (1952, ’53, ’55, ’57, ’58 and ’63) and two mixed doubles (1952 and ’57) crowns. She narrowly missed emulating her 1952 performance in ’53 and ’57, bagging two titles and narrowly missing the third. She was a key member of the Indian team that participated in the first-ever Uber Cup in 1956-57, and also assisted the national squad in the same international team event three years later.

Basically, Sushila was a graceful, yet attacking player who loved dictating the pace and trend of a rally. “I firmly believe that whatever you are in your personal life is reflected in your game,” she says. “I was an extrovert who usually spoke her own mind; and that trait could be seen in my playing style. I liberally used the half-smash to create an opening which could then be finished off. I took a lot of inspiration from Davinder Mohan, who directed his smashes to the sidelines.”

Just under a year older than Natekar, Sushila was born in Bombay on 27 September 1932 with a strong sporting streak, probably acquired from her mother’s side of the family. Her maternal uncle, Kamal Bhandarkar, had a hand in coaching India’s greatest opening batsman, Sunil Gavaskar.

“I used to play a lot of netball in school; I was captain of the school team, and won a lot of matches,” she remarks.

“Probably, the spirit of competition was always within me – to give my best. Yet, I played no serious badminton in my school days; it was always open-air badminton when we went to (the hill station) Mahabaleshwar for a holiday.”

Shortly after she entered Elphinstone College in 1948, she had approached her English professor on one occasion to hand over a medical certificate since she was unable to appear for an internal examination.

“Prof. Welingkar asked me, ‘What are you doing, wasting your time? You have such superb height; it could help you play good badminton,” Sushila recalls. “Elphinstone is playing Ruia in the inter-collegiate, and both teams are evenly matched. You could make a big difference to us!

“As I watched the matches on the Elphinstone College court, which had a hard, unforgiving cement surface, I was entranced by the game. The same year, I started playing badminton seriously at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), where my solicitor father was a member.”

At the time, the CCI boasted players like Madhav Apte, who excelled in both badminton and cricket. Initially, due to her ultra-conservative Maharashtrian background, she played in a saree, which later metamorphosed into a neck-to-toe covering salwar-kameez, complete with `chunni’. She eventually settled for a longish divided skirt (knee-length pleated shorts) for greater ease of movement.

Within a year, Sushila became good enough to qualify for the Elphinstone College 'B' team. She happened to play a local match against Ruia’s top player, Sumitra Nigudkar, later known as the mother of Test cricketer Sandeep Patil.

“Sumitra was much the better player at the time,” Sushila reminisces. “But I scored quite a few points against her, which I was told was a good achievement, but which, in my own opinion, was nothing much to write home about. I had turned ambitious!”

Initially, Sushila was quite satisfied playing in inter-collegiate competitions, but, as she kept improving, she began gradually gravitating towards open tournaments, as well. As success came her way, she claims she was simply swept along until, by 1951-52, she was effortlessly winning all the titles at stake, without even thinking that she was achieving something.

1952 was a fantastic year for Sushila – she won 19 singles titles, not only making a clean sweep of the local tournaments and the Western India in Mumbai, but winning the rare triple crown at the 1952-53 Nationals in Lucknow. Apart from her singles triumph, she bagged the women’s doubles crown in partnership with Shashi Bhatt (later Mrs. Sule), and the mixed title with returning machine Henry Ferreira.

Had the 20 year old Sushila ventured out of Bombay in 1952, her title tally would probably have been even higher, such was her dominance. However, her conservative parents did not like the idea of her going to strange northern and eastern Indian cities without a proper chaperone, and only permitted her to go to Lucknow with the full Maharashtra state squad.

India's Uber Cup team against Malaysia; Sushila Kapadia is on extreme right.

India's Uber Cup team against Malaysia; Sushila Kapadia is on extreme right. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni

Among her major rivals at the time were Prem Parashar (who was to go on to win two national singles titles in 1955-56 and 1957-58), Mumtaz (Chinoy) Lotwalla, Sunder (Deodhar) Patwardhan, Suman (Deodhar) Athavale, Tehmi Vakil and Delhi’s Krishna Nangia, a cousin of the fantastically deceptive Thomas Cupper Amrit Lal Dewan.

Later in her career, her biggest rival was Meena Shah, who was coming up as she was bowing out, and who would go on to win seven national singles titles in an unbroken reel between 1959-60 and 1965-66.

“Meena beat me in the Inter-state championships at the 1958-59 Guwahati Nationals – at a time when I was the country’s No.1 player,” recalls Sushila. “She was only an up-and-coming player at the time, but she moved around the court with dexterity in spite of her large size, and beat me fairly easily – which resulted in a sleepless night, during which I kept wondering what I had done wrong.

“She was a canny player, and had completely changed her strategy from the time I had played her previously. She caught me totally off-guard. I was to play her again in the individual event; and I managed to work out my strategy against her. I was hell-bent on reversing that defeat against her, and I did just that, to wrest back my national singles crown!”

In the initial years of her career, Sushila had to play with partners given to her by Maharashtra state – Shashi Bhatt in the women’s doubles and Henry Ferreira in the mixed event. However, players were permitted to choose an out-of-state partner for the individual Nationals, and Sushila chose to play with Prem Parashar in the women’s doubles and Trilok Nath Seth in the mixed event.

“Prem and I became an established combination in 1954, and we won practically all our matches over the next five years,” says Sushila. “We won the Nationals three years out of the next four, from 1955-56 to ’58-59, barring the 1956-57 Delhi Nationals, when Jasbir Kaur and Meena Shah took the crown.”

Sushila was to defend in 1959-60 the national singles she had won the previous year in Guwahati. But during a Uber Cup singles match against Malaysia in Jamshedpur, she wrenched her right ankle as she moved to retrieve a drop shot and had a serious ligament tear – the first major injury she suffered in her badminton career.

Team manager Sushil Ruia and Prem Parashar rushed her to an orthopaedic specialist, who said that the leg would have to be immobilised, and that she would have to be in traction for some months.

“The doctor told me that, if I wanted to take a calculated risk, I could go to a nearby `paanwala bhaiya’ (betel-leaf and nut seller), who was known to be a chiropractor; he may be able to put you right,” recalls Sushila.

“He was a solid, hulking 200-lb fellow; and he came and saw me in the same doctor’s clinic. He said he could put me right, but warned me that the pain as he manipulated the limb would be severe. He instructed Prem and Ruia to hold me down, and then he stood on the foot and did something that caused such excruciating pain that I thought I had gone to Heaven and returned!

“Then he put some brandy on the limb, and said I must keep it warm. Jamshedpur in winter was icy-cold; and we were billeted in the rooms of the Tata Engineering & Locomotive Co (later Tata Motors). So I kept the ankle wrapped up and returned to Bombay.”

Sushila Kapadia chats with Gregory Peck in the US.

Sushila Kapadia chats with Gregory Peck in the US. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni 

Despite the loss of Sushila’s singles point, India won the Uber Cup tie and then proceeded to the US for the final rounds. By the time the team was ready to leave, Sushila had had sufficient rest and physiotherapy, and recovered fully from the injury, which did not bother her again during her playing career.

Sushila was an integral part of the Indian team which played in the first Uber Cup at Kuala Lumpur in 1956-57. Money was scarce, and the team had to rely on donations to drum up the amount for the trip. Mumtaz Lotwalla captained the side; Suman Deodhar and Prem Parashar were the other members. Mumtaz and Suman were partners, while Prem and Sushila paired up.

“We were on tenterhooks after the team scores were stood tied at 2-all after the first four matches,” Sushila reminisces. “The fifth and decisive match pitted Mumtaz and Suman against Malaysia’s best combination. There were a lot of Indians in the crowd to cheer us, but the umpiring was extremely partisan.”

The Indians had lost the first game, but were leading in the second when the umpire unaccountably did not give a second serve to Suman. At this, Mumtaz got very agitated and remonstrated with the umpire, but he refused to budge. She lost control of herself, but Suman, who was a qualified doctor, kept her cool. After some 15 minutes of commotion, the match resumed, and Suman controlled it brilliantly to win the second and third games, to take India past Malaysia.

The team then proceeded to the UK for the final rounds of that year’s Uber Cup, and lost to Thailand comprehensively. The All-England Championships took place at Wembley immediately thereafter, but no member of the squad fared well.

“In late-1959, we once again beat Malaysia in Jamshedpur in the Uber Cup,” says Sushila. “We qualified to go in 1960 to the US, one of only two times that India has made it to the final stages of this event.

“The opening rounds were in Winnipeg, and we were on a shoestring budget. Team members were lodged in different people’s homes. The place was freezing, with temperatures dropping below zero. We won through, and went to Philadelphia for the final round.”

Richard Nixon had announced his candidature for the presidency at the time, and Sushila was to meet him in New York. She had earlier been working for the Tourism Department of the Indian government, and had got that job in the US for a year, the period that her air ticket was valid.

“Before we left for the US, I remember Dr Katrak, the orthopaedic surgeon, telling me that, after my US trip, I should give up badminton if I wanted to lead a normal existence for the rest of my life,” says Sushila. “He said my legs were ‘weary’. While Jagdish, my husband, was keen that I should continue playing, my in-laws were against it; and I was torn between the two. When you have played at the very top, you don’t want to settle for anything less.”

While playing at Jabalpur in 1962, Sushila was again injured when she went to pick up a drop shot – she strained the Achilles tendon of the left foot, which swelled and became discoloured in no time at all. She returned to Bombay with the foot heavily strapped up, wondering if she would be able to join the national women’s team on its imminent trip to Japan.

Sushila won a total of eleven national titles in a 12-year long career between 1951 and 1963.

Sushila won a total of eleven national titles in a 12-year long career between 1951 and 1963. Image procured by Shirish Nadkarni

“The orthopaedic specialist told me that, if I could stand, he would let me go to Japan,” she says. “But it was quite hopeless; I simply could not put any weight at all on the foot. I had to be operated; and during the recovery period, the doctor told me that, if I was determined to play again, and set my mind to it, I would be able to get back to the courts.

Sushila loved the game too much to just lie back; and so, after she had given birth to the first of her two sons, she trained hard, and got back to competitive badminton. She managed to win the women’s doubles title at the 1963-64 Gorakhpur Nationals in the company of Manda Kelkar, but the singles proved to be a bridge too far.

“Yet, my greatest satisfaction was when, in the 1964 Western India Championships at the Bombay Gymkhana, at the age of 32, I beat in a tough three-game affair my old friend and nemesis Meena Shah, who by then had won the national singles title five times, and was considered virtually unbeatable in the country,” says Sushila.

“By then, my legs were really going, and the pressures of being a wife, mother and professional – I was back at my old job in the Tourism Department – were increasing by leaps and bounds, so I gave up competition.”

Sushila was asked on more than one occasion to coach the Indian Uber Cup team, but found it near-impossible to get out of her domestic and professional commitments.

“Then there was a time I found going into the badminton courts to watch matches in the heat, the crowds and the noise totally suffocating,” she says. “I could not for the life of me understand why this should happen, but it did.

“Fortunately, that period did not last more than a couple of years. Today, I am back on the badminton courts, albeit this time purely in the passive role of spectator, to watch quality matches and to renew acquaintance with my contemporaries who are, like me, drawn back to the courts like moths to a flame!”

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.

Updated Date: Apr 05, 2020 11:31:49 IST

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