India's para badminton legend to gun for gold vs England's Daniel Bethel at 3 pm IST
Pramod Bhagat knew that his polio-afflicted left leg would need prosthetic adjuncts eventually, as the ankle started bending outwards. The southpaw put in hours into balance-mobility workouts to get his right leg – the non-leading limb – to take on the pivoting burden of para badminton. But it was in these last 20 years that para badminton’s first finalist for India, trained his brain to think like a giant of his sport. Taught his mind to shrug off the limitations of his limb, and erase the word ‘unfair’ from his vocabulary, never mind the cards he was dealt in childhood.
On Saturday, Bhagat beat local contender D Fujihara 21-11, 21-16 to storm into the SL-3 singles final. He will take on Englishman Daniel Bethel, a hot-favourite for gold at 3 pm IST later in the day.
Pramod is a legend himself with three World titles in 2009, 2015 and a double gold medallist in 2019 – at Basel where Sindhu won gold in able-bodied events. Gold standard champions though have loomed large on his legend.
“From very early, I used to watch Sachin Tendulkar accept umpire’s decisions without any complaints even when we could all see that something was a wrong decision. It was plain it was Not Out, but Sachin never opposed. From him I learnt spirit of sport,” Bhagat had recalled, before leaving for Tokyo.
Inspiration trickled in from his own sport: “When Saina won the 2012 medal, she took badminton to another level in the country. She looked so dominant on court and the body language was confident, I knew I wanted to be like her. Then recently in a webinar someone asked Pullela Gopichand about how to sustain in an expensive sport and I recall his mother having to sell jewellery for his knee surgery. While speaking, he said ‘lack of money can never be an excuse to not win when on court’. And it’s imprinted in my head. These are mentally strong characters, and my thinking is shaped by them.”
One could say though that Pramod only saw his own reflection in their champion traits. “Everyone works hard, but when stepping on court, I tell myself I’ve worked 200 percent hard. And I’m the best – carrying that ego on the court is very important. Court mein ghuuste waqt, main collar ko lift kartaa hoo. (I turn up the collar when stepping on court). I’m the Raja of the court. Then when stepping out, the collar is turned down,” he explained of something that Azharuddin used to do.
Bhagat’s absolute self-assured march into the finals also came on the back of snatches of something he watched in the Bhaag Milkha movie. “The great Milkha says that life has long runs and it has sprints. ‘Sau kadam ek mein lagaana hai’ Basically, you have to put the effort of 100 steps into 1 stride in the big competition. I have over 103 medals upto now, since I became World Champion in 2009. But this Paralympic medal is the big one. It’s down to this moment,” he mused as Para badminton debuted at the Tokyo Games.
Lording over the court though was something that Pramod’s happy-go-lucky temperament helped him crystallise in his mind, even as the lingering effects of the polio myletis weakened his nerves by age 10 after being stricken at 5. Growing up in Orissa’s Attabira district, Pramod would join other boys in his early teens, playing football and cricket despite restricted mobility. “As someone who struggles to move quickly, I would stare at a badminton court and laugh saying ‘itnasa chhota sa toh court hai’ (it’s a tiny space) compared to cricket and football fields! What’s the big deal?” he remembered.
It was only when he travelled to Malaysia that it hit him that a badminton arena can be an intimidatingly large space. “Even Mumbai, Delhi, Bhuvaneshwar didn’t have those mammoth badminton stadia. So I always thought it’s just a small court. I’ve covered football fields, so no problem,” he chuckled.
While his parents encouraged him to seek outdoors, it was Attabira’s unique fascination with the sport that drew him in. “About 2-3 kms along the highway from Attabira, you’ll find some villages where the craze for badminton is something else. It’s played outdoors under a tent. And I started out with many defeats continuously before I won my first match. It’s outdoor, so winds send the shuttle left, right, anywhere. Controlling the shuttle and chasing behind it was the biggest challenge. I stopped worrying about the leg very early. Maybe I never worried about it!” he exclaimed. All deception, variations were learnt in that whirlpool of a roughly constructed court.
Later, Bhagat would land coaching jobs at schools in Nagpur, Bargarh and Sambhalpur. And teaching children actually firmed up his own techniques. Yet, in the lead up to Tokyo, Bhagat would dedicate 30 minutes beyond the regular practice to sharpen his unique strokes – some improvised, others forced by the leg deformity. “The greatest player of badminton I know is Lin Dan. Whatever strokes he plays, it is all geared towards winning. Winning is most important, what strokes you play comes later. I never complicate,” he explained of the fellow southpaw.
Contracting Covid earlier in 2020, he would treat his time in isolation as a dry run to get used to the prosthetics. “I was asymptomatic, and 5-6 months before my roommate had 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 recalled.
His opponent in the final, Englishman Daniel Bethel has beaten Bhagat a few times, so the Indian is hungry for payback and has trained specifically. Rooting for PV Sindhu to win gold earlier, Pramod had noted the general drift of the arena. “At 2018 Asian para games, there was mad drift from one side. So I’ve played in those conditions. But I’m an Attabira boy,” he laughed, alluding to his beginnings in funkier outdoor conditions.
Pramod Bhagat’s ultimate inspiration though comes from the 2015 high-wire artist movie The Walk, where Frenchman Philippe Petit takes up a challenge of walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers. “I watch a lot of films. But it’s not like I remember all stories. But some moments stick in the mind. In The Walk, on his first attempt, he takes 4-5 steps and then loses balance hanging off the rope. You know why? Because after 3 steps, he thinks he’s finished the job. But it’s not finished till you reach the finish line. So, it’s better to take a deep breath and focus till the end,” he said.
Somewhere along the way, Pramod Bhagat himself became the inspirational hero. The King of the court he lorded over.
Suhas Yathiraj into finals
Para shuttler Suhas Yathiraj also stormed into the men’s singles finals of the badminton event but Manoj Sarkar’s hopes came crashing after he suffered a loss in his SL3 class semifinal at the Tokyo Paralympics.
The Noida District Magistrate Yathiraj will face the winner of the other semifinal between second seed Indian Tarun Dhillon and top seed Lucas Mazur of France in the summit clash on Sunday.
Manoj, however, couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm against second seeded Bethell, going down 8-21 10-21 in the other men’s singles SL3 class semifinals.
The 31-year-old will now play Fujihara in the bronze medal play-off later in the day.
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