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

It’s been a wonderful week for Indian sport. First it was the villains who did the unthinkable to unseat 14-time champions Indonesia and win the country’s first-ever Thomas Cup title, and then Nikhat Zareen made us all doubly proud by breaking the stereotypes and eliminated her opponents to win 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 – each member contributing to a common cause in an otherwise individual sport – and that collective effort will really lift the spirits of the nation.

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This victory will match any other greatest achievement in Indian sport.

It was great to see players like young Priyanshu Rajawat and 14-year-old Unnati Hooda as part of the Thomas and Uber Cup teams. When I played, Japan came with the best senior team, but there were also juniors who just wanted to gain experience. We have always wondered why Japan invests so much money and sends these young children. But if you look at Japan’s performance over the last five to six years – if you don’t count the pandemic – the country has benefited as these young players have emerged as top players.

There’s a school of thought that you should separate the juniors from the seniors, but I firmly believe that the juniors benefit from being around the seniors, whether it’s training or competing. You learn faster and benefit from this 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 young players that are part of the squad now.

However, the coming days will really tell the whole story. It’s a great achievement that we are all celebrating but let’s not forget that there are many more tournaments to come this year including the Commonwealth Games.

READ: One for the Team, by Lakshya Sen

The Asian Games have been postponed but badminton is an individual sport. All of these players and their performances are judged and considered more closely at the larger tournaments, without taking the shine or attention away from the colossal Thomas Cup win. These players need to build individually and leverage the confidence to be successful in the Tour events.

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

The men’s team had Lakshya Sen in ninth, Kidambi Srikanth in 11th, HS Prannoy in 23rd and Satwiksairaj Ranki Reddy and Chirag Shetty in eighth in doubles. If you just look at these leaderboards, it’s obvious that these players are adults and are already playing at a very high level.

We 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 need to build a team of this caliber again. We’ve done it once and we can do it again, but it takes effort and the right process.

The system must adapt to the pace of players and their aspirations, providing them with all the necessary and timely support. Not just Indian Badminton, but every sport requires a transparent, fair selection process as we know the effort that players, coaches and teams are putting in. There were murmurs of dissatisfaction following this year’s Thomas and Uber Cup selections. But as someone who has looked very closely at this process, I think there must be some room for some level of subjectivity as some decisions are made based on potential and not necessarily just performance. Some are taken based on intuition, others are taken with the bigger picture in mind. These kinds of choices sometimes don’t seem objective, but maybe over time they make sense. Choosing is such a tricky process that you can’t make everyone happy.

There are many times when players are unlucky, but it is only in the best interest of Indian Badminton. The selectors do their homework well, have the right intentions and keep the interests of the team and the country in mind.

We should put grumbling behind us and use the power of that victory to inspire greater success.

Inspiration is inspiration and is gender independent. It does not matter. These boys were inspired by what the girls had been doing for the last ten years.

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

When you see a feat like that, there’s a belief that if they can do it, so can we. Training with the champions – as I mentioned before – motivates, inspires and helps you develop the right work ethic. It takes away the uncertainty and brings a lot of self-confidence.

I have often said that the first World Championship medal 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 drew energy and truly aspired to achieve greater 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 see bronze at the World Cup, then silver and suddenly there’s gold.

It’s all about feeding off of each other’s performance and energy and greater things are ahead of Indian Badminton if we achieve the same with this win.

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