Saina Nehwal's training ground, Prakash Padukone Academy, is next mother lode for Indian badminton stars
The bright-eyed aspiring youngsters from the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy are on the threshold of becoming names to reckon with in the sport in India.
Ever since 2009, when an 18-year-old Saina Nehwal began making waves on the global badminton scene, the Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA), where she trained and played until 2015 has been considered the mother lode from which international-quality Indian shuttlers emerge.
Even after Saina switched to the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bangalore in 2015, the bulk of the players who represent India in international competitions have continued to come from the PGBA. Players like Kidambi Srikanth, Parupalli Kashyap, Sourabh and Sameer Varma, Haseena Sunilkumar Prannoy, B Sai Praneeth, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, PC Thulasi, Rituparna Das and Tanvi Lad, to name but a few singles exponents, have been the top players to have donned the national colours in recent years.
However, the recently concluded 81st National Championships have underscored the emergence of a new force in Indian badminton. Players from the PPBA have been to the fore in the Patna Nationals, with 15-year-old Lakshya Sen sidelining top-seeded Prannoy in the pre-quarter-final, Daniel Farid in the quarter-final (both narrowly by 21-19 in the deciding game) and Harsheel Dani in the semi-final, before meeting his Waterloo at the hands of Sourabh Varma.
Farid and Reshma Karthik, who reached the quarter-final of the men's singles and final of the women's singles, respectively, were trainees at PPBA for a long time. Farid was a resident at the Bangalore academy for eight years before he was 'graduated' last year, while Reshma was training and playing at the academy until January this year. The latter lost to Rituparna in the final at Patna.
"We have been doing this regularly over the years," says PPBA director and chief coach U Vimal Kumar, himself a two-time national champion. "Once they hit 20 years of age, we graduate them from the academy, so as to make room for other youngsters. Only if they show the same level of commitment as in their initial years, do we allow them to continue at the academy after crossing the age of 20."
Lakshya, at 15, is one of the youngest at the PPBA, and is paradoxically a veteran at the academy. It has been more than six years since the lad came from his hometown in hilly Almora in Uttarakhand to Bangalore, along with his elder brother Chirag.
That was one year after the PPBA had taken a conscious decision to train only juniors in the future. During 2010-11, the academy 'graduated' all the seniors who had been training and playing there until then - including Ajay Jayaram, Anand Pawar, Arvind Bhat and Anup Sridhar.
"Thereafter, we began concentrating on only juniors," says Vimal. "We had Aditya Joshi, Pratul Joshi, Chirag Sen, Lakshya Sen and Bodhit Joshi. The last three were from Almora, in Uttarakhand, and used to train and play together."
The Sen boys' father, Dhirendra Kumar Sen, is one of India's well-respected coaches, and operates at the Almora centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI). He had actually brought his older son Chirag for admission to the PPBA, but Lakshya happened to tag along.
"Lakshya was just nine-and-a-half years old when he came to Bangalore," reminisces Vimal. "I saw him playing, and recommended him to Prakash, who left to me the decision of whether to accept him or not. Later, when he saw the boy play, he was equally impressed; and has had a major hand in his training and coaching in the past six years. Prakash freely admits that Lakshya is better today than he was, at the age of 15."
The strengths and weaknesses of Lakshya's game have been encapsulated by Vimal thus: "Lakshya's style is not just blind smashing. His game is very similar to what Prakash played in his prime. He is very strong at the net, from where he can control the rally well. Since he catches the shuttle early, he has the option of tumbling the bird or sending his opponent back with a late flick or an attacking clear. He maintains a decent length, so he finds it quite easy to defend when his rivals smash against him.
"Unlike Prakash, Lakshya has a decent hit. Prakash suffered at international level because of the absence of a finishing smash, and usually employed the steep half-smash to try and terminate a rally. But Lakshya exerts a fair bit of power in his smash, and he craftily mixes his smashes with half-smashes and fast drops."
Although the trainees at the academy eat, drink, sleep and dream badminton, their academics are not neglected. The boys live in the PPBA dormitory, and study in the evenings after 6.30pm, when the day's training and playing sessions are over. Their schools give them special permission to go back to their hometown and write their examinations.
"It is very good of their school to be so considerate and allow them to go up through their classes in this fashion," says Vimal. "Schools in large cities and metropolitan centres would not be as accommodating. Mind you, they are all intelligent, and fairly decent students."
Lakshya is currently in standard 10 and would normally be required to write his SSC exams this March. But that is the time that Vimal will be taking him to the Dutch and German junior international tournaments. The school readily acceded to the coach's request to give the boy a special slot later to write his exam.
The current national runner-up, whose official date of birth on the Badminton Association of India (BAI) website is 16 August, 2001, has added three inches of height in the past one year, and currently clears 5-feet 10-inches, unlike his older brother, who remains a couple of inches shorter than him.
Vimal avers that there is room for the boy to grow at least another couple of inches, and touch the 6-feet mark, which is an excellent height for badminton. The coach claims that the older Sen is also talented, but is temperamentally not as strong as the younger lad is.
"Chirag gets upset during a match, and fritters the advantage away," Vimal says. "But Lakshya can handle pressure situations well. Chirag also divides his energies between singles, doubles and mixed doubles. In fact, for a while, we were thinking of converting him into a doubles specialist. But his heart is set on singles, so we have allowed him to carry on in singles."
A cloud presently hangs over Chirag's head in the matter of age fudging. A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) report, prepared in October 2016 (a copy of which is available with this correspondent), indicted four players - Chirag Sen, Laa Talar, C Rahul Yadav and Akash Yadav - for submitting false age certificates.
Chirag's father, DK Sen, had filed a Group Provident Fund nomination form on 5 September, 1996, showing Chirag's age at the time to be eight months. If that nomination form is to be believed, rather than the age certificate that Chirag has submitted from his school, the boy should today be 20 years of age.
However, on the BAI website, the player (ID 2304) has shown his date of birth as 22 July, 1998, which makes him 18, as of now. That has allowed Chirag to continue playing in the Under-19 category for two years longer than he was eligible. The CBI has recommended that the BAI take "suitable action" against all these four boys for cheating on their age.
Although Chirag is palpably guilty of age fudging, his talent is undeniable. If one looks at the results of the 2016 Nationals, which were won by Sameer Varma, one can see that Chirag (then 19, if one accepts the contention of the CBI report) beat former national champion Sai Praneeth, at least four years his senior, in the very first round. Vimal is of the opinion that, like Chirag, there are a number of juniors who can beat the seniors at any time.
"But the seniors get plenty of financial support to play international events, and so, avoid playing in domestic competitions," the coach laments. "Once you are in the core group, you get plenty of support to play international tournaments. The government takes care of all your expenses, including training, travelling and tournament participation."
It is understood that the Gopichand Academy gets a grant of Rs 3.50 lakhs per day from the Central government to take care of the running expenses of a full retinue of around 75 that includes players, coaches and support staff like trainers, masseurs and sports medicine specialists who closely monitor the players' fitness levels.
On the other hand, Prakash has not used his own good offices or status as a legend of the game to solicit governmental funding. The expenses of his academy are defrayed by private funding from organisations like Tata Capital.
The non-profit organisation Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) – of which Prakash and hockey star Viren Rasquinha are founder directors - picks individuals from myriad sporting disciplines to lend support to in the quest for Olympic glory. Lakshya is one such sporting talent who was identified by OGQ five years ago for support.
There are other PPBA youngsters, who fared brilliantly at the 2016 Junior Nationals, who are worthy of such support. Karnataka's Mithun Manjunath, runner-up to Lakshya in the Under-19 event, is a talent worth nurturing, as are Kerala's Kiran George and Delhi's Kartikey (winner and runner-up in the Under-17 event) and Laa Tumkum from Arunachal Pradesh (winner of the Under-15 at the same Nationals).
All these bright-eyed aspiring youngsters from the PPBA are on the threshold of becoming names to reckon with on the Indian badminton scene. The PGBA has some sterling competition for sure.