A Saina fan's plea to India's badminton authorities
Dear Badminton Authority of India and PBL organizers,
This is my first open letter. In fact, leave alone open letters, this is my first letter of any kind. Yes. I belong to that generation of bleary-eyed youth that thinks postboxes are relics, that prefers FIFA football over playing it on a green field, that knows Prakash Padukone only as Deepika Padukone's dad.
However, I was raised differently. Like a lot of 90s parents, mine, inspired by Pullela Gopichand, put a badminton racquet in my hands as soon as I could hold one. Luckily, I wasn't so bad. I managed to play at the national level, even if only for a short while. Luckily, I was coached directly by Vimal Sir in the same courts alongside Ashwini Ponnappa; under the same roof that Saina Nehwal practices under of late. Luckily, I was watching it on August 4th of 2012 when Saina lifted India's only Olympic medal in badminton.
As someone who watches badminton even if it comes packaged as “bad”minton, (whoever thought of that horrible marketing gimmick) I have followed the PBL since it began. Barring the sleazy marketing, the event sounded great. Getting to watch Lee Chong Wei play a few miles away from home? C'mon. Watch Saina take on Sindhu? Interesting. Watch Junior World No.1 Sameer Verma take on the big boys? Classic David vs Goliath. The format as well sounded cool, especially the trump match, although no one including your media team got it for the first few days.
Like always, I tuned in to watch the semis yesterday between Awadhe and Mumbai. My idol Saina was playing. I was surprised. She had missed the previous two matches due to injury. More so, she had mentioned she was in “terrible shape” just a few days back. She had had an Achilles tendon inflammation and a strained right knee.
As the match progressed, Saina clearly showed terrible signs of discomfort. I could not help but feel this searing anger in the pit of my stomach as I watched her hobble across the court point-after-point. An unheralded opponent, who on a normal day would have failed to make five full points, was taking her apart with not-so-subtle drops as Saina stood helplessly rooted to center position and could only watch. I as well could only sit and watch helplessly. It was turning into a horror-show. I had no choice but to switch off the TV.
However, multiple questions started floating in once I saved myself from watching that travesty unfold, chief of which was this: Why did Saina play that match? Din't she know she was horribly unfit? To anyone who had the good fortune of missing it, imagine M S Dhoni being picked to play tomorrow when he cannot run, and can only make runs by trying to whack the ball for a six or four; and losing the match as a result to Ireland.
This definitely is not what a World No.2 and India's only Olympic medalist in the sport should be subjected to. This definitely is not what India's biggest Olympic hope should be subjected to -six months before the Olympics. This definitely is not what any athlete should be subjected to.
I understand she is a free-willed professional and probably took the decision herself. But in a country where sports are run by khadi-clad old men sitting far away from the action, we can almost surmise what else went into this decision.
I also understand that the game needs its talisman and that without her the event would not have had the success it has garnered. But at what expense? At the risk of injury to the player who brought our country Olympic laurels?
Saina had troubles till the very beginning of the league and even opted out of their first match on the opening day. But a day later, she was seen in action against P C Thulasi. If she knew she was injured, why did she or why was she put up for the auction, especially when it was just a week or so before the event?
Why was a player, who hasn’t for days trained, in her own admission, asked to or allowed to play a so-called “International Level” tournament?
With this year being an Olympic year, asking your biggest medal hope to play despite an injury in a glitzy league is the worst idea of a preparatory event. Apart from Saina, most of the Indians are nursing injuries from the last season, and the league is most certainly hampering their recovery.
Parupalli Kashyap, who has been out with an injury, managed to make a comeback just in time for the event. However, he seemed a shadow of his former self as he hurriedly took to court without fully recovering from his injury. He lost match after match and seemed ill at ease on the court. Why is India's only other Olympian than Saina playing in a league that does not matter much after tomorrow when he has the Olympics to look to? Were he not better off recuperating through this difficult phase in is career?
It's not just the timing, however, that seems a victim of the marketing machine that is slowly eating its way through the sport.
The mega event began with a thrilling encounter between the Mumbai Rockets and Awadhe Warriors, which saw only five Indians while nine foreigners played for both teams. The plot seemed to have blatant holes right from the start. The budding Indian shuttlers, whom the event was supposed to promote, were found warming the benches.
True. The league has given the juniors an opportunity to practice with the elite in the game including the likes of Lee Chong Wei, Saina Nehwal, K Srikanth, P V Sindhu. It has also helped the second-rung Indian players who move from Grand Prix to Grand Prix without getting to play against the big guns a real chance to get a taste of the highest level of the game. Most importantly, it also helps in bringing attention to the sport, which is gradually making its mark in this one-sport nation.
But are these reasons enough for the grand league?
Most importantly, with the Olympics just around the corner, a billion hopes rest on the young shoulders of the Sainas and the Sindhus and the Srikanths. While we have learned that the sports administrators of this nation cannot be expected to nurture hope, we beg you to at least not destroy hopes of those few medals we yearn for. If you will not aid them, we understand. At least, leave them alone.