Jalandhar to Tokyo via Auckland: Indian-origin shuttler in NZ Olympics team

Last week, the 29-year-old three-time Oceania champion booked his berth for the Tokyo Olympics on the Oceania quota.

When Abhinav Manota left for Christchurch in New Zealand seven years ago, father Lovleen Kumar – a former India shuttler – had hoped to see his son pursue a career in management. But with Abhinav, who had become Punjab singles champion in 2012, opting to play the sport in New Zealand too, Kumar would often share tips over phone.

Last week, the 29-year-old three-time Oceania champion booked his berth for the Tokyo Olympics on the Oceania quota. With the world number 91 sealing his ticket to Tokyo, Kumar and wife Rajni Bala have been watching old videos of their son. “I could only become Punjab champion and always aspired to win a medal at the nationals,” shares the 61-year-old. “To see Abhinav compete at the Tokyo Olympics will be the biggest thing to have happened for our family. Even when he had planned to move to New Zealand, we knew that he could not leave badminton behind.”

Abhinav is currently at No. 103 on the Race to Tokyo rankings, and will qualify as the 35th player into a draw of 38 qualifiers. Badminton remains an Asia-dominated sport, and with the Badminton World Federation and IOC determined to watch it expand to hitherto unexplored countries, the qualification process has cast its net wide to include participants from as many outposts as possible. The policy of inclusion means Abhinav, who’s managed to play just 15 tournaments and has a third of Kidambi Srikanth’s points, gets in on the basis of his Oceania Zone geo-tag.

Pragmatic decision

Kumar would often spend his time at the Hansraj Badminton Stadium in Jalandhar, and a young Abhinav would often accompany his father to his practice sessions as well as insist on playing at their residence. The youngster would go on to become Punjab junior champion before claiming the Punjab senior title in 2012. A second-round defeat at the Nationals, and a first-round loss against Tommy Sugiarto at the Syed Modi Grand Prix in the same year was followed by a loss in the qualifiers of the TATA Open the following year.

These disappointments may have prompted Abhinav to opt for a move to New Zealand to pursue management at the Abacus Institute of Studies, Christchurch. It was during a badminton training session that Abhinav met New Zealand doubles player Dylan Soedjasa after which he decided to compete on the New Zealand circuit seriously and move to Auckland.

“After spending a year in Christchurch, where he stayed with his cousin Pavitar and played at the local stadium, he moved to Auckland on the insistence of Soedjasa, who also offered his home to stay for a year,” shares Kumar.

Good returns

Abhinav would pair up with Soedjasa to reach the quarterfinals of the Sydney International in 2015 followed by a semifinal run at the 2016 Waikato International, a tournament in which he also reached the quarterfinals in singles in 2017.

The last four years have seen Abhinav bagging three Oceania titles with the last coming in 2020, apart from two runner-up finishes in the BWF International Challenge/Series with him reaching the final of the North Harbor International in 2018 and the Bulgarian International in 2019.

Abhinav, who acquired New Zealand citizenship in 2019, has also paired up with Oliver Leydon Davis to claim three doubles titles – Dutch International, Hellas Open and Bulgarian International in 2019 with all three being BWF International Challenge/Series events. “Initially, when he suffered some early losses in singles, he would get frustrated and often sounded disheartened. He has been working as a development officer with North Shore Badminton Association and as a coach with the North Harbour Centre and would tell us that those coaching sessions would motivate him when he would get frustrated,” shares Kumar.

Great memories

While Abhinav has played against the likes of HS Prannoy and Sameer Verma, he faced two-time Olympic and five-time world champion Lin Dan at the New Zealand Open, a BWF Super 300 event, in 2019 and though he suffered a 6-21, 7-21 loss against the Chinese legend, the father is quick to share that it’s moments like these that they would cherish. “Whenever he met players like HS Prannoy, Sameer Verma and even juniors like Lakshya Sen, Abhinav would never hesitate to ask for tips. When he suffered the loss against Lin Dan, he made sure that he got a picture clicked with him and us and that’s what has kept him going all these years. New Zealand’s Danish coach Rickey Olsen Siegemund and Indonesian coach Fanny Megahwati tell him that his playing style resembles that of Prakash Padukone and if only he gets more time to train individually, he can improve further. But then Abhinav also has to earn money through his job to support himself,” says Kumar.

While Abhinav spends most of his day coaching youngsters, the last three years have also seen him being part of Badminton New Zealand’s training programme in Europe. In 2019, he also started a crowdfunding initiative to raise money for achieving his Olympic dream on the insistence of Siegemund, a seven-time world medallist, before his parents and sister helped him. “While Badminton New Zealand fully funds some of the training and competitions, players have to fund their travel and training too. Siegemund had suggested a crowdfunding drive and they managed to raise more than 300 dollars. At that time, I was visiting my daughter Nishita and her husband Gaurav in Australia and when we got to know about this, we gave Abhinav 10,000 dollars,” shares Kumar.

The pandemic has meant that Abhinav has not visited India since 2019 and the family too will miss watching the Olympics in the stadium. But Kumar and his wife Rajni would make sure that they follow the action on TV. “During the last seven years, Abhinav has always prepared next day’s breakfast and lunch to save time for his training and coaching kids the next day. He will surely remember all those days when he plays in Olympics and once he visits us, I would make sure he gets to eat as much fresh food as he wants,” shares Bala.

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