Paralympics: Pramod Bhagat, Suhas Yathiraj storm into badminton finals

Pramod Bhagat knew that his left leg, suffering from polio, would eventually need a prosthesis as the ankle began to bend outwards. The southpaw put in hours of balance mobility workouts to get his right leg – the non-leading limb – to take on the pivoting load of para badminton. But it was in those last 20 years that the first para badminton finalist for India trained his brain to think like a giant of his sport. Taught his mind to shake off the limitations of his limbs and remove the word “unfair” from his vocabulary, let alone the cards he was dealt as a child.

On Saturday, Bhagat defeated local hero D Fujihara 21-11, 21-16 to storm into the SL-3 singles final. Later in the day at 3pm IST he meets England’s Daniel Bethel, a hot favorite for gold.

Palak Kohli of India in action with Pramod Bhagat of India during their match against Nipada Saensupa of Thailand and Siripong Teamarrom of Thailand. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Pramod is a legend himself with three world titles in 2009, 2015 and a double gold medalist in 2019 – in Basel where Sindhu won gold in able-bodied competitions. However, gold standard champions have played a large part in its legend.

“Early on I watched Sachin Tendulkar accept the referee’s decisions without complaint, even when we could all see that something was a wrong decision. It was clear it was Not Out, but Sachin never objected. I learned sportsmanship from him,” Bhagat recalled before leaving for Tokyo.

Inspiration came from his own sport: “When Saina won the medal in 2012, she took badminton to another level in the country. She looked so dominant on the pitch and the body language was confident, I knew I wanted to be like her. Then someone recently asked Pullela Gopichand in a webinar how to compete in an expensive sport and I remember his mother had to sell jewelry for his knee surgery. During his speech he said “lack of money can never be an excuse for not winning on the pitch”. And it’s imprinted in my mind. They are mentally strong characters and they shape my thinking.”

However, one could say that Pramod only saw his own reflection in her champion traits. “Everyone works hard, but when I go out on the pitch I tell myself I’ve worked 200 percent hard. And I’m the best – carrying that ego on the pitch is very important. Court mein ghuuste waqt, main collar ko lift kartaa hoo. (I turn up my collar when I go onto the pitch). I am the raja of the court. The collar is then turned down when exiting,” he explained of something Azharuddin used to do.

Bhagat’s absolutely confident march to the finals also came through clips from the film Bhaag Milkha, which he had seen. “The great Milkha says that life has long runs and sprints. “Sau kadam ek mein lagaana hai” Basically in the big competition you have to put the effort of 100 steps into 1 step. I have over 103 medals since I became world champion in 2009. But this Paralympic medal is the greatest. This is the moment that matters,” he mused as para-badminton made its debut at the Tokyo Games.

Pramod Bhagat The top seeded Indian, reigning world and Asian champion, meets Briton Daniel Bethell later in the day in a summit battle. (FILE)

Ruling the court, however, was something Pramod’s cheerful temperament helped him solidify in his mind, even as the lingering effects of polio myletis weakened his nerves at age 10 after being struck when he was 5. Raised in Orissa’s Attabira district, Pramod joined other boys in his early teens and played football and cricket despite having limited mobility. “As someone who has trouble moving fast, I would stare at a badminton court and laugh and say ‘itnasa chhota sa toh court hai’ (it’s a tiny space) compared to cricket pitches and football pitches! What’s the big deal?” he recalled.

It wasn’t until he traveled to Malaysia that he realized that a badminton arena can be an intimidatingly large space. “Not even Mumbai, Delhi or Bhuvaneshwar had these mammoth badminton stadiums. So I always thought it’s just a small place. I’ve covered soccer fields, so no problem,” he chuckled.

While his parents encouraged him to seek out the great outdoors, it was Attabira’s unique fascination with the sport that drew him. “Around 2-3 km along the highway from Attabira you will find some villages where the badminton craze is something else. It is played outside under a tent. And I started with a lot of losses before I won my first match. It’s outdoors, so the wind sends the shuttle left, right, everywhere. Controlling and chasing the shuttle was the biggest challenge. I stopped worrying about the leg very early. Maybe I never worried about that!” he exclaimed. All deceptions, variations, were learned in this whirlpool of a crudely constructed court.

Later Bhagat got coaching jobs at schools in Nagpur, Bargarh and Sambhalpur. And teaching children actually solidified his own techniques. But in the build-up to Tokyo, Bhagat devoted 30 minutes beyond regular practice to honing his unique shots – some improvised, others forced by the leg deformity. “The greatest badminton player I know is Lin Dan. Whatever shots he plays, it’s all designed to win. Winning is the most important thing, what shots you play comes later. I never make it complicated,” he explained of the southpaw.

In early 2020 he had signed Covid and was treating his time in isolation as a dry run to adjust to the prosthetics. “I was asymptomatic and 5-6 months before my roommate got it so maybe it was reinfection who knows. When I tested positive, I was with my family after a long time. But my only obsession was Tokyo,” he recalls.

Pramod Bhagat Bhagat is set to pair with Palak Kohli for their mixed doubles SL3-SU5 semi-final later in the day. (FILE)

His opponent in the final, England’s Daniel Bethel, has beaten Bhagat a number of times, so the Indian hungry for revenge has been training hard. Pramod, who used to let PV Sindhu win gold, had noticed the general drift of the arena. “There was a crazy drift off one side at the 2018 Asian Para Games. So I played under these conditions. But I’m an Attabira boy,” he laughed, alluding to his early days in weirder outdoor conditions.

Pramod Bhagat’s ultimate inspiration, however, comes from the 2015 high-wire artist film The Walk, in which Frenchman Philippe Petit takes on the challenge of walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers. “I watch a lot of films. But it’s not like I remember all the stories. But some moments are remembered. In The Walk, he takes 4-5 steps on his first attempt and then loses his balance while hanging from the rope. You know why? Because after 3 steps he thinks he has done the job. But it’s not done until you reach the finish line. So it’s better to take a deep breath and concentrate to the end,” he said.

Somewhere along the way, Pramod Bhagat himself became an inspirational hero. The king of the court he ruled over.

Suhas Yathiraj is in the final

Para shuttler Suhas Yathiraj also stormed into the men’s singles final of the badminton event, but Manoj Sarkar’s hopes were dashed after he lost in his SL3 class semi-final at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Noida District Judge Yathiraj meets the winner of the other semi-final between second-placed India’s Tarun Dhillon and top-seeded Lucas Mazur of France in Sunday’s clash at the summit.

However, Manoj failed to find his rhythm against second-placed Bethell, losing 8-21, 10-21 in the SL3 class semifinals in the other men’s singles.

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