By Dev S. Sukumar, IANS
Kuala Lumpur : It's always a strange moment when a former prodigy returns to court. Six years after Abhishek Bakshi gave up badminton – on the cusp of becoming P. Gopichand's successor and the game's most charismatic figure in India since Prakash Padukone – he returned to watch childhood friend Anup Sridhar reach the quarter-finals of the world championships.
Bakshi's decision to quit in his teens, just when he was beginning to show glimpses of extraordinary talent, has never been understood.
Here was a player who at 19 had the sort of European build and game no Indian ever had. Bakshi cut a formidable figure. At 6 feet 2 inches, he was the tallest player in India, long-limbed, broad-shouldered and well-balanced, with one of the hardest smashes in the game, and he was giving the country's best players a torrid time.
In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Indian junior and senior teams that participated in open events in Asia and Europe. He was called to train with the Indian Thomas Cup team in 2000 during their camp at Bangalore.
Such was his potential that he was selected by the International Badminton Federation (IBF) to join their world junior academy in Cape Town the same year.
And then, just when it seemed he was ready to take over the mantle of national champion from Gopi, he told his coaches he was quitting the game to concentrate on his studies.
In his quest for a management degree, he failed to qualify for any of the premier institutes in India but gained admission to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2004.
He is doing well now as an investment banker with ABN-Amro, dealing with capital markets and looking very much the studious management whiz. He wears glasses and keeps his hair short – during his playing days he needed a headband to keep his long, flowing hair in place.
"In hindsight it was a good decision," he says. "I have a good job and am doing well, so I'm happy."
But he could've had it all in badminton. He was top-ten material, he could've been doing what the guys on court are doing now – playing for the country and soaking in the atmosphere and adulation.
There is a long pause before he speaks: "In Indian sports it's fairly simple, right? You get to a stage when you have to make a decision.
"For me that decision was when I finished my undergrad studies. You know I was ranked pretty high and performing well so that decision became hard. But at that point I had a few things to decide on – whether the injuries would play a part, the long term… All of a sudden I started thinking long term as opposed to going with the adrenaline and how I was playing and all that.
"And I also realised that in terms of my family, there were lots of people in banking… An MBA was what I eventually wanted to do. I thought why not do it now.
"If I had… it might seem a silly thing to say…. but if I had definitely seen myself as the best player in the world, then may be it would've been a hard decision.
"But I was sixth in India. I hadn't even won the nationals… So based on what was I going to continue? Just on potential?
"At some point you've got to get real. As in tangible results. What was there backing me at that point? I was not that young – I was 19. And all the guys that have done well, the Lin Dans and Taufiks, they were way ahead by the time they turned 19."
When he looks back now, there were a few moments that helped him clinch the issue.
One of these was a quarterfinal with Gopichand in 2001 in Jaipur when he lost in quick time. Gopi would go on to win the All England the same year.
"If I had been in the other half of the draw…"
Then there were those matches in the Dutch and German junior opens when he ran into an Indonesian who was the best in the world.
"Even there, you know, it's one of those things when I felt… I got the best guy in both tournaments, and if I had played someone else…
"Little things added up. My right Achilles' heel always hurt. For over a year I was always playing with my leg strapped and … it was a lot of these little things. You look at Indian sport and the support they get once they're down. One rupture to my heel and it would've been over."
Many of the peers are now among the world's best. He'd played with some of the current Malaysian internationals at a camp in 1998 and he'd seen China's Bao Chunlai and Indonesia's Sony Dwi Kuncoro – both semi-finalists at the world championships here – in the European junior tournaments.
It's interesting to think of what might have happened if he had taken the road that Anup Sridhar did… for he has grown up with Anup. They were among the earliest trainees at Prakash Padukone's academy in 1994.
They were in the same college and had shared rooms during tournaments away from home.
At the junior level Abhishek, a year and a half older than Anup, was the better player – he had won all the three tournament matches they played.
They've remained close even after Abhishek moved to Hong Kong and he keeps in touch through email and phone.
Anup has been lately creating waves in the badminton world, and it's tempting to ask Abhishek where he might have gone if he had taken the road that Anup did.
But Abhishek reconciled himself early to his decision and has never dwelt on what might have been if he had taken the other fork in the road.
Indeed, he is reluctant even to talk about it. His decision was well thought out and he has no regrets.
He can't avoid the nostalgia, though, that comes with visiting a badminton hall and looking in wonder at 10,000 Malaysian fans rooting for their players.
He also cannot bring himself to play badminton any more, not even for recreation. "No … I can't. It's too painful to play badminton, you know."