When the superstar of Indian badminton Saina Nehwal was going through a career slump in 2013-2014 seasons, she made a conscious decision to seek new pastures to rejuvenate her sagging spirit and her fortunes in the game.
Her destination was Bengaluru, which has emerged as the Mecca of Indian badminton. Saina moved from Hyderabad to Bengaluru in 2014 to train under coach U Vimal Kumar, former national champion and coach.
Within a few months, her career was back on track. She went on to win a couple of Super Series Grand Prix events and emerged as runner-up in the All-England and World championships. Recently, she became the first Indian woman badminton player to bag the number one ranking in the world.
It is not just Saina who made a beeline to Bengaluru. Several top players in the country have chosen Bengaluru as their base for training at Karnataka Badminton Association’s facility. The KBA also houses the country’s premier private badminton academy started by Indian Badminton icon Prakash Padukone.
What makes Bengaluru so special? It has a unique history in the game, committed administrators and top notch coaches, besides boasting a world-class badminton stadium at the KBA.
A fascinating history
Until Independence, Bengaluru had remained a colonial outpost. British Army personnel played the game in the city during their social gatherings.
In 1949, a few badminton enthusiasts in the city, led by the late Ramesh Padukone, father of Prakash Padukone, began to promote the game in a big way. Ramesh persuaded the Canara Union at Malleswaram (founded by the Chitrapur Sarsawat Community) to allot space for a badminton court at its community hall.
Ramesh along with friends, popularized the game by playing at the court at the Canara Union. The growing enthusiasm for the game prompted many clubs in the city and districts to build badminton courts.
Finally, the Mysore Badminton Association was formed in 1951. Later it came to be known as the Karnataka Badminton Association.
The game changer for Bengaluru came in the 1970s, when a frail 17-year-old lad Prakash Padukone took Indian badminton by storm, when he won the senior, junior singles and doubles titles at the National championships in 1970-71 seasons.
Padukone’s domination of the national scene continued until 1979 and he set a record by winning nine nationals in as many years. At the international level, Padukone stunned the world with his great exploits as he won the All–England Championship in 1980 and received a ‘Rock Star’ welcome when he returned to Bengaluru with the Trophy. He stamped his class with more memorable triumphs and between 1974-88, he won the Swedish, Danish Open, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games and World Championship titles and thus became the first Indian player to be ranked as World No1. In the early 1980s, Padukone shifted to Copenhagen and trained in Denmark for a few years.
Padukone’s feats stirred the nation and the game’s popularity began to soar. When Padukone returned from London with the All England Cup, he received a rockstar welcome in Bengaluru. He was taken in a motorcade from the airport to the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of Karnataka Government, where he was felicitated. It seemed that the entire Bengaluru denizen had turned up to greet the sports hero on that memorable day.
Meanwhile, the KBA went into top gear to build a stadium of its own and a state-of- the-art badminton complex, with ten wooden floored courts, a club house, a gym and facilities for other games like table tennis and squash. The complex was opened in 1997. KBA conducted a senior national championship in 1962. It hosted the championship again in 2006 and 2010 at its new stadium.
First private academy
After retirement in 1989, Padukone did not rest on his laurels. He set up the country’s first private badminton academy, along with former National champion U. Vimal Kumar and former State champion Vivek Kumar in 1994, with an aim to groom Indian players to international level. PPBA later shifted its operation to KBA in 1997 after KBA’s courts were ready. There were skeptics, who doubted the viability of a private academy, but sponsors like BPL and later Tata, began supporting the PPBA.
PPBA, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, over the past two decades, has trained hundreds of promising players and the list reads like who’s who of Indian badminton. It includes Pullela Gopichand who replicated Padukone’s All England triumph in 2000, Nine time National women’s champion Aparna Popat, two time National men’s champions Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhat, National women’s champions Aditi Mutatkar, Sayali Gokhale, B.R. Meenakshi and the current women’s doubles exponent, Ashwini Ponnappa, National junior champions Aditya Prakash, Anand Pawar, Rohan Castelino and RuhMisha, Mahima Agarwal among others. National teams from Russia, Sri Lanka and England also came and trained at PPBA. PPBA also invites top coaches from abroad to train its wards.
“The journey of PPBA was extremely satisfying and we have travelled a long way. Now our focus is on juniors”, said Padukone.
The success of PPBA spawned many academies in the city, such as Tom’s Academy and Ubhaykar Academy. The KBA, on its part has been going full steam conducting 20 tournaments in Bengaluru and in districts, besides holding summer coaching camps and regular training programmes, thus becoming the India’s top badminton body.