For Prakash Padukone, it has been a tough last few months. The Indian badminton legend’s elder brother, Pradeep, passed away in the United States. And, in the midst of the massive personal loss, he, along with all his family members, tested positive for COVID-19.
However, Thursday ushered in a change in mood as Prakash Padukone turned 66 and marked the occasion with loved ones at his Bengaluru residence. The presence of eldest daughter and Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone made the day even more special for him.
Wishes from his friends and contemporaries kept Prakash Padukone, who is still on the road to full recovery, busy throughout the day. Prakash Padukone was hospitalized on May 1 as a precautionary measure, amid persistent fever, and he remained there for over a week.
The man who put India on the world badminton map in the 1970s and ’80s still rules the hearts of fans. Prakash Padukone, who trained for several years in Denmark with Danish legend Morten Frost, was the first Indian to win the All England Championships in 1980.
In 1971, at the age of 16, Prakash Padukone won the senior nationals, making him the youngest player to do so. He went on to bag nine straight national titles, which is still a record.
After his retirement in 1989, Prakash Padukone co-founded the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) with billiards stalwart Geet Sethi to facilitate Olympic sports in the country. Several shuttlers, including PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and former junior world number one Lakshya Sen, have used the platform to boost their careers.
Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, an Indian badminton institution
However, his greatest contribution to Indian badminton is the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA), established in 1994. In the last 27 years, PPBA has produced several national and international stars, including Sen.
PPBA director and head coach U Vimal Kumar remembers the early days:
“We launched PPBA on October 1, 1994. It was the first professional badminton academy in the country. He [Prakash] used to spend a lot of time with all the trainees and guided them with his vast experience. He was a mentor for most of them. He used to share his personal experiences with the youngsters which motivated them to do wonders for the country.”
Nine-time national champion Aparna Popat, two-time champion Sayali Gokhale, the Sen brothers – Lakshya and Chirag – and several others are products of the PPBA. Even 2001 All England champion and chief national coach Pullela Gopichand was once a trainee.
A former doubles partner of Prakash Padukone, Uday Pawar, recalls the good old days and cherishes their great friendship.
“In 1976, as a 17-year-old, I reached the final of the senior nationals. The umpire announced the match and across the net was my hero Prakash Padukone. I froze for a moment, as until then it had not struck me that as a junior I had beaten four seeded players and was playing in the senior national championship final. I lost the first game easily, but the second game was quite close. What really stunned me after the match was Prakash explaining to me what mistakes I committed and what I should have done in the hard-fought second game.”
Uday Pawar, who now runs Uday Pawar Badminton Academy at the Goregaon Sports Club in Mumbai, was impressed and became lifelong friends with the “Boss”, as he fondly calls Prakash Padukone.
“It was then I realized what an extraordinary person Prakash was. From then on, we not only became very good friends, but also doubles partners. Together we won many crucial matches for India in all the major team events we played, including the Thomas Cup. One of our colleagues, Vikram Singh, appropriately nicknamed him “Boss”, and even today, we affectionately call him ‘Boss’.”
Another former international shuttler and current vice-president of the Badminton Association of India (BAI), Pradeep Gandhe, also remembers his early days on the domestic circuit.
“I first saw Prakash in 1968 during the south zone inter-university badminton championship at Dharwad. I was representing the Nagpur University team and Prakash was the youngest member of the Bangalore University. He was a very delicate-looking boy then. His older brother Pradeep was also part of the Bangalore varsity team. Pradeep, who was two years older, was a more accomplished player than Prakash at the time but he did not continue and went abroad for higher studies.”
Pradeep Gandhe and Prakash Padukone, who was his junior, regularly bumped into each other at inter-university, all-India and international tournaments and national camps for the next couple of decades.
Gandhe still admires Prakash Padukone’s honesty and simplicity.
“I still vividly remember an incident from an international tournament in New Delhi. During the crucial moment in a match, Prakash hit the shuttle wide but the linesman called in. Prakash proceeded to tell the linesman and umpire that the shuttle had dropped wide. The umpire informed Prakash that he cannot overrule the linesman and that he had won the point. Prakash then accepted the umpire’s decision but while serving next he deliberately served outside the court so that his opponent gets justice. Eventually, he lost the match narrowly.”
When Prakash Padukone was playing at his peak, Sanjeev Sachdeva used to be the coach of the Indian team. The Chandigarh-based veteran still rates Prakash as one of his most obedient wards.
“He was a thorough gentleman throughout his career. He was very disciplined and focused. He never used to go shopping whenever we were touring abroad as he doesn’t believe in time-wasting tactics. Before the match he never used to speak with anyone. His preparations for the match were unique. He always used to respect his teammates, opponents and officials.”
PPBA coach and Lakshya Sen’s father, DK Sen, is grateful to Padukone for identifying his son’s talent at an early age.
“It was Prakash sir who saw the spark in my son. He took Lakshya under his wing when he was barely ten years old. In addition to Lakshya, several other players in India have benefited from his guidance. He is still a role model for many youngsters. The mere presence of the PPBA courts motivates all of us to give our best. His vision is to see India do well in international badminton.”
Indian badminton has seen tremendous growth over the last couple of decades. And Prakash Padukone has, undoutedly, been one of the driving forces of this revolution. It is perhaps his way of giving back to the game, that has given his everything.