Strokes of class in the age of adversity

After proving he still has some fire left in him, Arvind Bhat says he is taking it one tournament at a time now.

Success in life, and sport especially, hinges on the clichéd three-word phrase: “Never give up.” Shuttler Arvind Bhat, who last Sunday caused a sensation by clinching the German Open at the ripe old age of 34, is another classic example of this.

While Bhat’s success so late in his life might have come as a surprise for many, but for his friends and family who have been following and supporting him over the years, it comes as a no shocker as rewards have always come late for the ever-trying Bangalorean who failed four times on the final stage at the National Championships before finally emerging champion in 2008. His international career is also dotted with just reasonable successes, reaching a peak in 2007 when he won three titles.

The main reason behind his late achievements is his extremely delayed start. Caught between education and a sport that didn’t offer much to the ones who didn’t make it to the elite list, Bhat chose to pursue mechanical engineering that at least guaranteed a secure future.

Still playing badminton but not professionally, Bhat’s life underwent a complete change when he earned a call-up to the national team in 2002 while he was in his final year of college at UVCE. Giving it a deep thought, he finished his engineering successfully before diving totally into badminton at 22 despite knowing he would be starting his career when most players of his age on the circuit were already accomplished performers.

“I started at 22 because at that point of time, badminton didn’t have the recognition it has now,” Bhat reasoned. “Also, there weren’t many sponsors too. For example, my brother Avinash was as good as me. Many old-timers would say he was far more talented than me. The reason my brother had to stop badminton was because at that time, until you represented India, you had nothing in it.

“So he pursued his engineering and I also wanted to do the same. Badminton was just an alternative option. Things, however, changed in my final year. After I made it to the national team, I got a job with Bharath Petroleum and the finances were taken care of for my travel, training etc,” said the two-time National champion.

Despite the late beginning, forcing him to work almost twice as hard as his contemporaries, Bhat soldiered on through the initial tough period where he earned very little in return for his efforts. He landed his first international title in 2004 when he triumphed at the Scottish Open but another near three-year lull followed. However, he never gave up, tasting triple glory in 2007, winning the New Caledonia Open, Syria Satellite Series and Jordan Open.

The hat-trick egged him on as he finally scaled the National podium in 2008, erasing the bitter memories of four defeats he had suffered over the previous seven years. He repeated the national feat in 2011 and finally won the coveted Grand Prix gold this month.

What makes all this special is that Bhat has been working all on his own over the last three years. Ever since Badminton Association of India decided to focus largely on the youngsters in 2010, a policy even the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy -- the place where he used to train -- decided to adopt soon, Bhat was left without a proper coaching staff.

While he had the option of relocating to P Gopichand’s Academy -- the national training base -- in Hyderabad, marriage and family commitments kept him tied to Bangalore. Now, Bhat trains along with some State shuttlers at the Karnataka Badminton Association, just seeking Gopichand’s assistance on an occasional basis.

“Ever since the academy (PPBA) said they wanted to concentrate on the juniors, we seniors took it positively, although there was a bit of resentment initially. However, I had no choice other than talking to Gopi because he was still in touch with me.
“He was 36 when I was 31 and he told me that he still had the ability to compete against the juniors and beat them. He actually motivated me to keep playing. Talking about the coach, I have no other choice but to train with the KBA guys. I thought about relocating to Hyderabad but with my wife (Pallavi) being pregnant, I really couldn’t think of moving away.

“Tom John’s academy was a good option. Tom is a great coach. Anup (Sridhar) and Ajay (Jayaram) moved there. I gave it a thought initially. When they started the academy, it was an hour and a half drive from home.

“It seemed more practical than relocating to Hyderabad. But they didn’t have a good physical structure in place like the KBA. To succeed in international badminton, you need to train in huge halls which they didn’t have. The distance and lack of infrastructure kept me away from training with Tom,” added Bhat.

Although the success has given him a second wind, Bhat wishes to take it one step at a time.

“My whole focus would be to start training from Monday. Just continue doing things like I’ve been doing over the years and enter a tournament thinking that could me my last event. Of course, I’m playing the Indian Open as a qualifier -- I could advance to the main draw or even crash out. I have to learn to deal with bad results. I’m on the last lap of my career. I don’t want to think of the finish line but enjoy every step until I get there.”

Although the start may not have been exactly what Bhat would have wished for, the climax seems to be tailored perfectly for him.

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