Olympian shuttler and national champion for many years during her prime, Aparna Popat is back in business as the coach of Mumbai Masters in IBL. In an exclusive chat to G Krishnan, the 35-year-old can’t hide her excitement about being back in business and working with the likes of world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia and reigning All England champion, the retired Tine Baun of Denmark. Excerpts:
It must be a comeback of sorts for you in badminton, isn’t it?
In a way, it is. I have doing commentary and writing on the sport but this was something I was keen on doing, and IBL is a great platform for me. After being a player representing India for many years, it is interesting to be back in the badminton field. This is something that is really exciting for me. I’m glad to have got the opportunity to be part of the Mumbai Masters team. I am really excited to be involved. Once I am near the court or the badminton fraternity, it is a different high I experience. I’ve been in touch with the game as I work for Indian Oil, handling sports for them. I have been following the game closely, though I’ve not been coaching. I’ve been in tune with what’s happening.
Would you take coaching seriously?
The way I’ve been coached by my coaches, I think coaching is a very very serious commitment. It’s not something one can take lightly unless it is a conscious decision. I don’t think so far I had the time commitment or in a way to actually get into coaching on a full-time basis though I used to conduct summer camps for Indian Oil employees’ children. I was always clear that I wanted to share the knowledge I have with anybody who I feel could benefit. That way, I was always willing to participate in any which way I can.
Sunil Gavaskar is part of your team. What has been your interactions with him?
I distinctly remember Mr Gavaskar being a chief guest of a final that I was playing when I was 13 or 14. I remember him sitting in the first row and watching my match. Otherwise, have not had any interactions with him. Of course, now he is a part owner of our team. Unfortunately, he was not at the auction. We have not met him yet but he has been sending a lot of encouragement mails from abroad as he is not in the country.
How are you looking forward to working with Lee Chong Wei and Tine Baun?
It is going to be a huge learning experience for me as well. It is going to be interesting to see what a world No. 1 is like, see how he thinks. Honestly, there is not enough time before the tournament. When you deal with players at this level, it is more about strategy because you obviously don’t teach them how to smash or serve. Being part of the Indian circuit, it is about getting them acclimatised to the Indian conditions as we are going to be travelling across six cities. These guys know what they are doing, my role would be to just provide as much support and inputs that I can give, considering the tournament is in India. Obviously, Tine is the current All England champion. She has retired but by giving her availability to play this tournament, somebody of her stature will be professional enough not to confirm unless she is prepared for a tournament like this. I am absolutely thrilled she is part of the team. Apart from the Chinese, Tine and Saina (Nehwal) have been the ones who have shone at the international level.
Coaching IBL would be different than normal coaching, isn’t it?
As I said, it is going to be about strategy. The World Championships end on August 11. By the time the players come in, it will be 12th or 13th and tournament starts on 14th. We are just hoping to get as much time to understand each other. Each player is different. Each one has to be handled differently, they have different requirements. It will be about as much help I can provide, how much inputs I can provide during the match because there are two breaks in a game as opposed to one.
Are you happy with the composition of your team?
We have players for all the events. In that sense, yes, we do have a good composition of the team. Having said that, whether we are going to pull out or and how many we are going to pull out against which team, it will be a bit premature to speculate. All in all , we are happy but this format is tricky. With limited purse, none of the teams could strengthen all their events. At the end of the day, it will balance out. That will make it even more interesting.
Having a world No. 1 in your team does not necessarily land you the IBL title, does it?
Absolutely not. We have seen it happen in the IPL. Teams with the biggest names have not been able to perform to potential. Not just in IPL but also in a lot of disciplines. Players are smart enough to realise that it is not just big names that are going to assure us of winning. We have to play well on that day.
Were you happy with the recognition you got in your playing days?
First of all, with the facilities that we had and exposure to international tournaments, I have no regrets with my performances. I worked hard and did the best I could. Having said that, the Indian badminton scene has changed tremendously in the last five years ever since I retired around 2007. The scene has been changing, it is unfair to compare what I had with what these players have. I am happy Indian badminton is always looking up. We always had the talent. This is something I have discussed over the years, that India have the talent but can’t do well and it was just a matter of giving the Indian shuttlers a system. Now that the system is in place. Today, I can say I’m proud to be part of the badminton fraternity.
In the context of IBL, how was the money in your playing days?
I started my career with a prize money of Rs 50. This was way back in 1989 when I was 11 years. The first ever tournament I won, a girls singles final, I won Rs 50. At that point in time, I did not think so much about money, I just loved playing and that, luckily for me, stayed right through my career. I just loved competing and loved playing. In today’s era, players have to be more aware and more mature because there is money. They need to learn to manage their money and have to realise their brand. It’s a different sort of psyche today. We had a more innocent career. But times have changed. Seeing the amount of money spent in IBL and also amount of endorsements and sponsorships coming in badminton, players have to be more aware now.
Today’s players have to cope up with expectations also, isn’t?
Expectations are going to go up, there’s no question about it. For example, if you spend Rs 50 lakh for a BMW, you will have high expectations of the car. You have to come to terms with it, you have to realise that it is not a one-way street. You want to get the money, you have to be responsible about it. I’m not saying you have to win every game. You can’t. But you have to try your best.
What do you make of the absence of Chinese players from IBL?
Of course, the Chinese players do play a prominent part in world badminton today. Having them would have been brilliant. That said, I am sure everybody was keen on having the event per se. Sometimes, you can’t wait for everything. They had a genuine reasons as their National Games is held once in four years and hence could not participate. It is the first year of IBL, there is going to be teething problems. All in all, so much positive is happening for Indian badminton that we can sidestep their absence.
What are India’s chances in the World Championships?
As far as Saina’s draw is concerned, it is good. To avoid the Chinese till the semis is obviously good. Playing Minatsu Mitani in the quarterfinals, whom Saina has beaten before, I’d say she has a good draw. Naturally, Saina would be the favourite as far as the Indian contingent is concerned.