The rapid development of badminton in an Indian state with no tradition of the sport offers the opportunity for a fascinating case study. Part 1 of a two-part story:
By all accounts, badminton is booming in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Dozens of courts have mushroomed over the last few years in urban and semi-urban centres; thousands of players turn up for the numerous tournaments through the year; overseas coaches are hosted by private clubs. And while this might not seem exceptional in a country where badminton is a popular sport, what’s peculiar is how recent this phenomenon is in a region without a strong tradition of badminton.
Tamil Nadu was better known for tennis (courtesy of the Amritraj brothers of the 1970s) and chess (world champion Viswanathan Anand). Badminton had little resonance beyond a few pockets. But in a phenomenon that probably merits a closer study, things changed around eight or so years ago. That meant that the first cohort of international players that emerged is still in their teens – the BWF World Junior Championships was a good example, as five players in the Indian team, including men’s singles silver medallist Sankar Muthusamy – hailed from Tamil Nadu. Emerging players include those in Para badminton – world champion Manisha Ramadass and recent winner in Brazil, Thulasimathi Murugesan.
A classic instance of the sentiment in favour of badminton is Muthusamy himself, whose father was a state tennis player. Muthusamy chose badminton over tennis, and in a sign of how committed the family is to the sport, his father quit his job to support his son. Unlike earlier players from the region who’d shift to elite academies elsewhere once they’d progressed to a higher level, Muthusamy decided to stick with the centre where he’d started (Fireball Academy in Chennai), an unusual decision given the choice of elite academies in other states, but indicative of his confidence in the quality of training available on home turf.
“My father was a tennis player; he wanted to put me in a sport. I started with tennis, and then for no particular reason I switched to badminton. From the beginning we treated it professionally. When I started around 2009, there were no courts. There were two or three courts in the whole of Chennai. Infrastructure was a problem, but now there are lots of courts. I’m quite comfortable in Chennai and I can get the training I need.”
Muthusamy is not sure of the reasons for the recent explosion of interest in the sport, but credits the state association (TNBA), alongside the inspiration of watching the exploits of Saina Nehwal, Pusarla V Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and other Indian players.
VE Arunachalam, Secretary of TNBA, reels off statistics on the health of badminton.
“There are 23 to 27 ranking tournaments a year, and six leagues played in different formats,” he says. “In Chennai (capital of Tamil Nadu) there are 200 clubs, and about 1,000 in the whole state. People who own a piece of land convert it into a court. Players are emerging from even remote villages with single courts and they do come up to the national level.
“Sponsors were interested because footfalls at tournaments have increased. We have around 30,000 participants a year, so there’s huge revenue generation. In the recent past badminton has become the No.1 sport as it can be played during any season.”
What has also changed is the profile of people taking up the sport; while it was an upper or middle income segment that played badminton earlier, it now attracts even those with lesser means.
“There are about 200 children who’ve stopped regular schooling, and have taken up badminton as a profession; they’re dedicating their lives to it. They aren’t even from well-off families. It’s so positive to see this. Then there are cases of people supporting them on a small scale,” says Arunachalam, who mentions the case of a player from a small rural community, whose village contributed to his expenses on the national circuit.
For its part, TNBA has brought in overseas coaches – including Danish legend Peter Gade and Malaysia’s Yogendran Khrishnan – to conduct clinics. “Twenty years ago, the state had only one (prominent) coach, Sanjiv Sachdeva,” says Arunachalam. “Now every year, we have three coaching clinics. We want to see an Olympian from Tamil Nadu.”
The boom in badminton isn’t restricted to the able-bodied; it is attracting differently-abled players in increasing numbers. A case in point is Para world champion Ramadass, whose story is symbolic of a wider trend. Hailing from Thiruvallur, a municipality located 50km from the capital, Ramadass started out playing several sports, but decided to focus on badminton.
“I started playing in 2015 as I idolised Nehwal,” said Ramadass. “A lot of players suddenly started playing badminton around the same time. There must be some reasons behind that. Dad believed in me, he encouraged me to dedicate myself to badminton. Initially the cost of pursuing the sport was discouraging, but we kept believing that we could achieve something. I finally got government sponsorship after five years.”
Part 2 of the story to follow