When one thinks of Manipur’s tryst with sport, a montage of judokas, boxers and weightlifters comes to mind, conditionally enough; Badminton is a distant thought. One might think that the badminton boom thought to be fixated on southern India is regionally concentrated – but Manipur’s bubbly and bustling dual duo of Manjit Singh Khwairakpam and Dingku Singh Konthoujam are poised to water down that notion and place Manipur on the badminton map bring.
Fumbling with Bluetooth, camera angles and a struggling internet connection, Manjit and Dingku settled in for an interview with The Bridge before sitting in different rooms of their Malaysia hotel at their first-ever Senior Badminton Asia Team Championships (BATC 2022).
All 20 going to 21 in 2022, neighbors turned friends turned partners – Manjit and Dingku, who hail from the far north east, are now in the big leagues, poised to take on the senior badminton circuit side-by-side , and you can. They cannot contain their fear (what about the pandemic!) and above all their excitement when stepping onto the pitch for the Indian national team.
Alongside recent singles badminton sensation Meiraba Luwang Maisnam, who just won the Iran International Challenge 2022, Manjit and Dingku, the two former Indian U-19 players Manjit and Dingku, are bringing a badminton revolution to Manipur with their exploits – both nationally and internationally.
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From winning the U-17 title at the All India Junior Ranking Tournament in 2016, to winning top honors at the U-19 National Ranking Tournament, to reaching the Quarterfinals of the Asian Junior Badminton Championships in Jakarta in 2018 – Manjit and Dingku were on the rise!
Manjit and Dingku, which rose to prominence without a coach or even a proper wooden court to practice on, were destined to play badminton. Although they now train at Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad and can look back on recent semi-final runs at the Bahrain International Challenger 2021, BATC 2022 will be their first major event with the senior team.
In Ningthoukhong, a village in the Bishnupur district of Manipur, Manjit and Dingku grew up with only a lonely concrete badminton court to try their badminton skills on, without a real coach to train them at all. Manjit and Dingku, who have played instinctively rather than intentionally since their early days in the sport, are no fairy tale of hope as they rise to become the country’s No.1 U-19 doubles players.
“We didn’t have a specific coach growing up. There was a former international, Oinam Santosh, he’s like an uncle from our village… but he also had another job so he wouldn’t play regularly… and off apart from that, it was just us,” Manjit recalls.
“We taught ourselves what we knew and finished runners-up in the U-13 national team in 2014! It was so random,” Dingku mentions sheepishly, suppressing a smile.
But where did it all start for these two sports-loving boys and obviously with their own bromance?
Manjit and Dingku, who had known each other since middle school, although initially in different circles of friends, gradually bonded on the field – at cricket, football, marbles and, of course, badminton.
Her main catalyst was Manjit’s father, Ranjit Singh, himself a former athlete, who saw the badminton dream for Manjit and Dingku and planted the seeds – to put Manipur on the badminton map, to propel Ningthoukhong to better days and hopefully chasing an elusive Olympic medal.
If you don’t dream big, is it even fair to dream?
“My father loves sports. He pushed us more than just academics, he pushed us more into sports. He was also an athlete – running, soccer, volleyball, you name it. He was willing to do anything for the sport and the way he cares has been amazing for both of us,” Manjit remarks, still in awe of the kind of hard work his father, a government worker, put in she had done.
“We have no real place in our village. Just a concrete court that’s not even ideal for badminton,” notes Dingku Singh, athletically named after Asian Games gold medalist late boxer Dingko Singh.
Indeed, things are stark at home for Manjit and Dingku, who may be rewriting badminton history piece by piece, but they have yet to receive any special perks or sponsorship from the state. Notwithstanding their successes, little has changed in Manipur. Aside from their MLA, Govindas Konthoujam, who recently endorsed them, Manjit and Dingku now function without any kind of sponsorship.
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But that’s not the only trouble at home.
“Now whenever we are in our village and want to play badminton, teach the interested children what we have learned so far, we still have to wait until the seniors stop playing … they are just passing their time and leaving the children don’t play,” Manjit says a little sadly.
Discover the rookies and make the dream come true
Fueled by that beginner’s luck and raw talent, Manjit and Dingku soon came on International Chief Referee H. Gyaneshwar’s radar during the late 2015 state championships. Impressed by their mutual understanding on the pitch, it was Gyaneshwar who approached Chief National Coach Pullela Gopichand with these two new insights from Manipur.
Since then, Manjit and Dingku have not looked back and joined Pullela Gopichand Academy in April 2016, where they still train.
“When we first arrived at the Academy, it was a moment of awe as we watched our favorite seniors play in front of us. There were Saina didi, Sindhu didi… Srikanth bhaiyya, Satwik-Chirag, Sumeeth Reddy…’ both let their dazed memories scroll back the years.
Manjit and Dingku, set on doubles from the start, have never focused on singles, and whenever they face off, the neck-and-neck race is apparently still a tie.
Specially coached by Arun Vishnu at the academy, the Hyderabad rookies found strategy and method for their on-court madness with racquet and shuttle and the improvements were immediate.
“We play a lot like Satwik-Chirag, you could say. While I stay close to the net like Chirag, Manjit takes care of the back like Satwik. Also, our coach saw that in us too and we stuck to that,” Dingku mentions.
Fanning out India’s top doubles pair Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, Manjit and Dingku find many similarities with them.
“Back when we joined the academy in 2016, they (Satwik-Chirag) weren’t that well educated and polished… but now they have the experience, the nutrition, the mental toughness and they’ve put in so much hard work to make it happen.” They are No. 8 in the world today,” Dingku said.
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On the verge of transitioning from junior to senior, Manjit and Dingku may have started badminton as fun and games without too much serious thought, but now, once in the midst of international competition, Manjit and Dingku also weigh the Olympics dreams bright in their hearts.
“Manipur Can Dominate Indian Badminton”
It was not an easy road for Manjit and Dingku – their journey full of obstacles. Even if the country is ready to recognize their talent, somehow the state does not fully support them. In fairness, Manipur has seen a boom since Manjit-Dingku and Meiraba started taking medals at national and international events, but the battle is only half won.
“What we desperately need back home is a foreign coach for the budding players who can find talent at grassroots, district and state levels… Manipur Badminton Association needs to take the job more seriously and do it in a more structured way.” Dingku suggests helpfully in front.
“We’re very physically fit during our growing years – being from the North East our physiques are a bit different,” Dingku tells The Bridge. While coaching with Indonesians at Gopichand Academy, Manjit and Dingku have learned a lot similar to the Indonesians in terms of structure and physique, the duo stressed – a thing that should also be considered for the future of Indian badminton.
“At the moment, Manipur has many players who are rising in badminton, but unfortunately we still don’t have adequate training facilities in our state, although there is so much success… our village still has no wood yard,” Dingku mentions, hoping her achievement at will help the Badminton Asia Team Championships.
“I’m speaking to a couple of youngsters and I’ve learned that the schedule they’re currently training on is a complete mess…there’s an SAI coach, but there’s no proper setup to develop talent at home.” Dingku clears up.
Manjit interjects and continues: “We also need structure. This will help Manipur grow as a strong badminton state and we can dominate India I’m sure,” he suggests.
Manjit and Dingku are slowly but surely dragging Manipur onto the nation’s badminton map. They have a mission bigger than themselves and hope their performance at BATC 2022 will only serve as further proof of their talent and draw attention to the far corners of the country. this is, quite obviously, brewing with untapped talent.
The 2022 Badminton Asia Team Championships begins on February 15 in Selangor, Malaysia and the Indian men’s team has been placed in Group A alongside defending champions Indonesia, South Korea and Hong Kong. BATC 2022, which will act as a qualifier for the Thomas & Uber Cup finals in May, is a pivotal event and Manjit-Dingku hopes to make the most of it.