Aparna Popat after India’s Thomas Cup win: ‘Inspiration is gender independent

It has been a wonderful week for Indian sports. First, it was the baddie boys who did the unthinkable to unseat 14-time champion Indonesia to win the country’s first-ever Thomas Cup title, and then Nikhat Zareen did all of us doubly proud by knocking the stereotypes and her opponents out to win a World Championship gold in women’s boxing.

REPORT: India wins first Thomas Cup title, beats Indonesia 3-0

The Thomas Cup win was a team effort – every member contributed to a common cause in an otherwise individual sport – and this collective achievement will really lift the spirits of the nation.

This win will be right up there with any of the other biggest achievements in Indian sports.

It was great to see the likes of young Priyanshu Rajawat and the 14-year-old Unnati Hooda as part of the Thomas and Uber Cup teams. When I was playing, Japan used to come with the best senior squad, but also had junior members, who were there to just gain experience. We’d always wonder why Japan was putting in so much money and sending these young kids. But if you look at the performance of Japan in the last five-six years – if you don’t count the pandemic – the country benefited as those youngsters turned out to be top players.

There’s a school of thought that you should separate the junior squad from the seniors, but I’m the firm belief that whether it’s training or whether it’s competition, the juniors will benefit if they are around the seniors. They will learn faster and gain from that exposure.

I was in an Uber Cup squad at a very young age, and it really helped me and I’m sure it will help the youngsters who have been part of the squad now.

However, the days going forward will really tell the entire story. It’s a huge achievement that all of us are celebrating, but let’s not forget that there are many more tournaments left in the year, including the Commonwealth Games.

READ: One for the team, from Lakshya Sen.

The Asian Games have been postponed but badminton is an individual sport. All these players and their performances will be assessed and looked at more closely when it comes to the bigger tournaments, without taking away any sheen or any attention from the colossal Thomas Cup victory. These players will have to build themselves individually and use the confidence to script success in the Tour events.

Though it’s unfair to compare the Thomas and Uber Cup results, the women, too, need to start delivering the results. Badminton – as a sport in India – has gained such a reputation that getting to the semifinals or coming back with a bronze doesn’t feel good enough.

The men’s team had Lakshya Sen ranked nine, Kidambi Srikanth at 11, HS Prannoy at 23, and Satwiksairaj Ranki Reddy and Chirag Shetty at number eight in doubles. If you just look at these rankings, it is evident that these players are mature and already playing at a very high level.

We’ve won two bronze medals at the Uber Cup in 2014 and 2016, but that was mainly because we had Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu – both in the top 10 – and then the phenomenal doubles pairing of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa. We must again build a team of that caliber. We’ve done it once and we can do it again, but it’ll need the effort and the right process.

The system will have to move at the pace of the players and their aspirations and give them all the necessary and timely support. Not just Indian badminton but every sport demands a transparent, fair selection process as we know the kind of effort the players, the coaches and the teams put in. There were murmurs of discontent after the Thomas and Uber Cup selections this year. But as somebody who’s looked at this process quite closely, I think there needs to be some room for a certain amount of subjectivity because some decisions are taken based on potential and not necessarily only on performance. Some are taken based on intuition, and some are taken keeping the larger picture in mind. Those sorts of selections, at times, appear to be not objective, but maybe down the line they start making sense. Selection is such a tricky process that you can’t make everyone happy.

There are a lot of times when the players will be unhappy, but it’s just in the best interest of Indian badminton. The selectors do their homework well, have the right intentions, and keep the interest of the team and the country in mind.

We should leave the murmurs behind and use the power of this win to inspire more success.

Inspiration is inspiration and is gender independent. It doesn’t matter. These boys have been inspired by what the girls had done over the past decade.

A whole generation of badminton players was inspired when Prakash Padukone won his All England Open in 1980.

When you see such an achievement, there’s the belief that if they can do it, then we can. Training with the champions – as I mentioned earlier – motivates, inspires, and helps you imbibe the correct work ethic. It takes away the uncertainty and brings in a lot of confidence.

I have been saying often that the first World Championship medal that India won after Padukone’s bronze in 1983 was actually a women’s doubles medal.

From that 2011 women’s doubles medal by Jwala and Ashwini, the players have fed off the energy and really aspired to get to bigger things. After Saina’s Olympic bronze in 2012, we were like “Oh, you know that’s great!” and then suddenly, in 2016, it’s silver for Sindhu.

Then, you look at bronze at the World Championships, then silver and suddenly it’s gold there.

It’s just about feeding off each other’s performances and energy and greater things are in store for Indian badminton if we can do the same from this win.


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