Past Masters of Indian Badminton: TN Seth — A gentle, graceful sporting champion who was revered by teammates and rivals alike
TN Seth was a winner of five national titles, including four singles crowns in the years 1952, 1955, ’56 and ’57, effectively punctuating the title run of his greatest rival, Nandu Natekar; and one mixed doubles title in 1951 with Doris H David at a time when foreigners were permitted to play in the Indian Nationals.
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 running 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.
Technically, and by following age-old journalistic good practices, one should refer to this particular badminton champion by his full name, Trilok Nath Seth.
But that would result in consternation on the faces of not just his contemporaries, but also those who followed him into the pantheon of Indian badminton greats. For he was known simply as “TN” A gentle, graceful, exceedingly sporting champion, who was revered by his team members and rivals alike.
On with the story of the man who won five national titles, including four singles crowns in the years 1952, 1955, ’56 and ’57, effectively punctuating the title run of his greatest rival, Nandu Natekar; and one mixed doubles title in 1951 with Doris H David at a time when foreigners were permitted to play in the Indian Nationals.
The year was 1952; the occasion was the second Thomas Cup series ever to be played; the venues were Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. An Indian badminton player named TN Seth was an integral part of what at the time was termed by Malayan newspapers as “the most unforgettable Thomas Cup match.”
Four teams had qualified for the inter-zonal finals of the competition to win the trophy donated by Sir George Thomas to anoint the best men’s badminton team at international level.
Of the teams in the fray, the US came through the Americas, Denmark came through Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region had Malaya and India. India had entered the inter-zonal finals after beating Thailand in Bangkok in its first round, and Australia in the second round in Melbourne by identical 9-0 margins.
Malaya, as defending champions and 1948 winners of the inaugural edition, were only required to play the Challenge Round, a system similar to that employed in the initial years of Davis Cup tennis.
In the three-way elimination tournament-within-a-tournament, the USA received a bye and awaited the winner of the tie between Denmark and India. In what effectively became a semi-final, played in Kuala Lumpur, India notched up a stunning upset by knocking out the fancied European Zone champions Denmark by six matches to three.
“The Danes were probably adversely affected by the heat and humidity of the Malaysian capital,” said Indian doubles specialist Manoj Guha, who was a member of that Indian squad, and generally played men’s doubles in tandem with Gajanan Hemmady. Guha passed away in Kolkata in August 2018 at the ripe old age of 98.
“The Malayan newspaper headlines blared: `Under-rated Indians play havoc with formidable Danes.’ “Even the official brochure of the Badminton Association of Malaysia had prematurely published a cover which declared that the zonal final would feature `Denmark versus USA’. They had to scrap those brochures, and get new ones printed in a hurry!”
The Indian team flew overnight to Singapore without any rest, to play the zonal final the next day against the US. That was the match which turned out to be the best in the short history of the Thomas Cup until that time, and remains among the best and most strongly fought clashes of all time.
The US-India tie was played at Singapore’s `Happy World Stadium’, where around 8,000 spectators could be accommodated.
Having bought tickets at more than double their face value in the black market, they crammed every nook and cranny of the hall in expectation of another great showing by the Indians, following their remarkable triumph over Denmark.
“When we reached the stadium, we were greeted and cheered by thousands of spectators who had been unable to get tickets, but were waiting for us outside the arena,” recalled Guha, when I met him in January 2011. “The hall was packed to capacity; and, it being the month of June, the temperature inside must have been in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit!”
The Indians started disappointingly, losing all four of the matches on the opening day – the two singles and two doubles.
But, from the start of the fifth match on the second day, one of the greatest fightbacks in the history of the Cup began.
India’s captain Davinder Mohan pipped Martin Mendez, America’s top player and ranked No 2 in the world at the time.
Mendez had accounted for TN on the first day, and had been expected to have the measure of Mohan, but succumbed after a doughty affair.
Then started the second reverse singles between TN Seth and Dick Mitchell, a strapping 6’ 2” left-hander. To everyone’s amazement, TN beat the American, again after three games, simply running away with the decider at 15-8, 5-15, 15-1. The American player quite clearly suffered badly in the stifling heat of the stadium, but it did not bother the Indian quite as much.
In the third singles, the wily Amrit Lal Dewan, who was given to boasting that he could beat any player in the world on their first meeting with him, performed a miracle by levelling the scores over extra points in the second game after losing the opening game to Joe Alston, professionally an FBI operative, at 15-11.
“After Amrit took a 7-1 lead in the decider, the American coach, Ken Davidson, who was sitting by the sidelines, signalled Alston to not exert and allow Dewan to win the match, probably to save his own energies for the doubles,” said Guha.
With India narrowing America’s lead to 3-4, the first doubles started between Davinder Mohan and Henry Ferreira on the one side, and Carl Loveday and Bob Williams on the other.
The Americans had beaten Guha and TN Seth in straight games on the first day, and were expected to seal the tie for the Americans.
But the hard-hitting Mohan played like a man possessed; and with the doughty returner Ferreira giving him stout support, the Indians won the first game at 15-10. They were outplayed at 3-15 in the second, but held on by the skin of their teeth in the decider, with Mohan putting everything in the fray, and clinched it by the narrowest of margins at 18-17. India had achieved the impossible, and restored parity at 4-4.
“The spectators went totally crazy,” Guha remembers. “People had gate-crashed illegally into the stadium, and there must have been around 10,000 of them, screaming and shouting. Some of them barged onto the court to try and chair the winning Indian pair. The management had a tough time controlling the crowd; and, in fact, had to suspend the tie for 40 minutes to get the playing area cleared.”
In this pressure-cooker atmosphere began the ninth and final match, the second reverse doubles, between TN Seth and Guha, with Mitchell and Alston on the other side of the net. The Indians began in a whirlwind fashion, and took the opening stanza at 15-6.
“When we took 8-2 and 9-3 leads in the second, Radio Malaysia actually announced India as the winner of the tie,” says Guha.
“Sadly, we somehow lost intensity and the Americans leveled the game at 10-all, and went on to win it.
“By losing that game, we had lost the opportunity of a lifetime of reaching the Challenge Round to face the champion nation Malaysia. Basically, TN was exhausted at having had to play four matches. Our opponents drew away in the decider after the change of ends, and we lost the game, and with it the tie, at 15-7.
“The next day, all the Malaysian newspapers were full of praise for the Indians with headlines that screamed: `Best match ever played in Thomas Cup series. India, though lost, won the hearts of everybody’. It was thus that we brought India onto the badminton map of the world by finishing third in that series.”
Finishing third was something that the Indians did in the following series in 1954-55, as well. They extracted retribution from the US for their 1952 defeat, beating the Americans in the zonal semi-final by six matches to three.
In this tie, Nandu Natekar had replaced Davinder Mohan as India’s premier player, and won both his singles matches. TN, who was by then in his singles prime and was also captain of the team, lost narrowly to Joe Alston at 14-17, 16-17, but beat Dick Mitchell for the second time in the Thomas Cup, at 15-7, 8-15, 15-11.
Guha, who combined better with Gajanan Hemmady than he had with TN, notched up two doubles wins; and Parduman Singh Chawla’s hard-fought 15-17, 15-11, 15-2 win in the third singles made the issue safe for India.
However, Denmark were to gain revenge from the Indians for their 1952 loss, with the charismatic strokemaker Finn Kobbero acing both Natekar and TN Seth in the singles, even as Jorn Skaarup beat TN quite easily; and Kobbero and the big-hitting Hammergaard Hansen were far too strong for both Indian doubles combinations.
Possibly, it was a lack of adequate international exposure that prevented the Indians from going further than the third place on each occasion. Otherwise, the 1930-born TN had a magnificent record of consistency at the Indian Nationals, winning the singles for the first time at Lucknow in 1952-53, and figuring in every final thereafter until the 1958-59 Gauhati Nationals.
TN won the National singles crown four of the seven times he trekked to the final, having the misfortune of losing to Natekar on each of the other three occasions – at Gwalior in 1953-54, Pune in 1954-55 and Gauhati in 1958-59. He was to beat Natekar in only one National singles final – at Delhi in 1956-57.
“In the team event of the Delhi Nationals in 1956-57, I beat him in three games, all three of which went over the extra points,” says Natekar. “He gained his revenge in the individual event, beating me in the final – again in three games, with the final game ending at 18-16 in his favour. It reveals just how closely we were matched.”
TN was not much of a doubles player, though he was pressed into service to play doubles with Manoj Guha in the 1952 Thomas Cup series.
He was certainly not in the same class as his protégée, Suresh Goel, in the paired events, yet won a solitary mixed doubles title at the 1951-52 Kanpur Nationals with Doris David as partner.
In the initial years of his career, opportunities to play abroad were extremely few. In the only All-England he played in 1954, when he and Natekar went after collecting the requisite funds with much difficulty, he lost in the second round to Denmark’s Poul Holm. But his exploits in the Thomas Cup singles ensured that his name passed into the annals of Indian badminton as one of the greats of the game.
TN’s contemporaries were unanimous that he appeared a little bulky for badminton. Nevertheless, he had an extremely smooth and easy style; and, in spite of his bulk, his movements were fluid and graceful.
“If he was at the baseline when you dropped at the net, he would still reach it,” says Natekar. “How he did it, I could not tell you, but he did reach. He always served high and behind, and relied more on tiring out his opponent than forcing the points.
“Initially, he began with mostly overhead strokes, but soon developed a reliable backhand as well. His staying powers were among his strong points; but, unlike many defensive players who can be very boring to watch, he was very easy on the eye.
“If he had a shortcoming, it was that he was inclined more towards defensive than aggressive play. That is possibly because he lacked a powerful smash.”
An Arjuna Award winner, TN was perhaps one of the most gracious and sporting gentlemen the game has known, and an example for players to follow. He was never known to question a line decision, never to complain of playing conditions, and never to refuse to play a match, or matches, at any time. He would always do his utmost to cooperate with tournament organisers and help make their work easier.
“I have been told that every organiser looked forward to having my husband play in their tournaments, for he was popular with players, organisers and spectators,” says his widow Dr Lakshmi Seth, who was running a flourishing maternity nursing home in the heart of Gorakhpur, when I met her in 2011.
“He was a soft and courteous individual, like a typical UP man, and was blessed with a contagious sense of humour.”
“TN would usually be seen smiling,” says Natekar. “I had an excellent rapport with him because we toured a lot together, going to the All-England, the All-American, and the Thomas Cup series.
“He was not very fluent in English, and would usually converse in Hindi. When we were abroad, we used to have sessions of singing and camaraderie with our opponents and the umpires in the evening after the matches. TN ended up singing the `Hanuman Chalisa’ (a spiritual tome)!”
TN, who was employed by the Indian Railways as a Sports Officer, was mentor to the magnificent strokemaker Suresh Goel, and Syed Modi, too, in his early days, benefited from the man’s fluid style of play.
TN Seth was a lodestar for the many promising juniors of Uttar Pradesh, whom he guided, coached and encouraged through the years. Perhaps his splendid game and sterling example have provided the reason why Uttar Pradesh has produced so many junior national badminton champions.
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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