The first Padukone

If you google "Padukone", the search engine throws up over 1.6 million hits. Of these, a little over a million are for movie star Deepika Padukone, compared to less than half that for Prakash Padukone, her father, who transformed the profile of badminton in the country when he became the first Indian to win the All England title, the sport's most prestigious tournament and one comparable to Wimbledon in its aura, in 1980.

Padukone's win came more than 100 years after badminton was introduced to, and then became the rage in, British India.

On August 22, 1873, the Manchester Guardian carried a curious bit of news in an item on the British Empire's Kashgar Mission. It said that the game of badminton had taken Indian society "by storm". Proof of this was readily available in the pages of the Times of India of 1874. The newspaper's correspondent from Mahabaleshwar reported that the hill town had "gone badminton mad". "The woods are deserted, and old and young spend their mornings and evenings in dark spots, playing this evidently fascinating game." The correspondent, however, disapproved of the obsession with badminton, saying that "a good healthful gallop, or a walk" was far more beneficial to the young, especially girls.

The correspondent's views evidently did not have too many takers, since badminton's popularity, especially in western India, grew by leaps and bounds.

From the 1930s, an all India championship and a Western India championship were held regularly. Given the history of the game's growth, some of the best Indian players were from the west and the north, with Prakash Nath, who got to the All England final in 1947, and Nandu Natekar being some of the finest of their time.

Padukone's home state of Mysore, as Karnataka was known till 1973, figured nowhere on the badminton map, however.

"Much like the dribbling skills of hockey legend Dhyan Chand or the elegance of Ranjitsinhji, it was Prakash's wristy play that beguiled opponents"

His father, an employee with the state-run Indian Telephone Industries Ltd, was instrumental in his taking up badminton. But like most Indian sportspersons of the time, Padukone achieved what he did with little help from the state. He honed his skills in a wedding hall in the Canara Union, a religious and social centre for the Chitrapur Saraswats, the caste group to which he belonged, and at the Malleshwaram Association's court in Bangalore. According to his biographer, Dev Sukumar, the peculiar dimensions of the Canara Union hall, whose roof was 20 feet high, with girders at 17 feet, influenced Padukone's playing style.

From early on, Padukone showed prodigious talent on the court and as a 16-year-old he won both the senior and junior badminton nationals in 1971, a feat that has not been matched since. He had all the qualities that a newspaper correspondent in 1874 believed a good badminton player should have: "the cool head, the bright eye, the firm wrist, the healthy physique".

Yet no one expected him to scale the heights that he did in a sport dominated by the Indonesians, Malays, Danes, and subsequently the Chinese. When he won the All England, it was the first time, billiards excepted, that an Indian had won an individual sport's premier global tournament.

The Times of India reported of the reception he got when he returned to Bangalore: "A huge crowd of relatives, friends and fans cheered him as he entered the airport terminal... Soon after the red carpet welcome, the sports hero... was taken in an open jeep... Prakash was garlanded profusely all along the 14km drive."

It was typical of Padukone's solidly middle-class background that one of the first things he did on reaching Bangalore, according to the newspaper, was to touch the feet of his 84-year-old grandfather. What had also gone unnoticed was that even while the All England tournament was on, Padukone's family announced his wedding with Ujjala Karkal in the newspaper's engagements column.

In winning the All England, Padukone defeated two of the all-time greats of modern badminton - Morten Frost of Denmark, a four-time winner, in the semi-final, and the Indonesian legend Liem Swie King, a three-time winner, in the final.

What marked Padukone's style of play was his emphasis on touch and guile. Much like the dribbling skills of hockey legend Dhyan Chand or the elegance of Ranjitsinhji, it was the wristy play that beguiled opponents.

In 1980, besides the All England, Padukone won the other two most important tournaments at the time, the Swedish and Danish Opens. Newspapers labelled his feat as a badminton "Grand Slam". He followed it up by winning the World Cup in 1981.

"Padukone defeated two of the all-time greats of modern badminton -Morten Frost of Denmark, a four-time winner, in the semi-final, and the Indonesian legend Liem Swie King, a three-time winner, in the final"

After losing to Padukone in the final of the 1980 Danish Open, Frost called his opponent the "master of feigned shots". "When I arrived on the scene, I was at first awed by the lightning-quick speed and power of the Chinese and Indonesians... Prakash was one of the few who had managed to provide some resistance to their domination with his wristy, deceptive and counterattacking style."

After that, despite the occasional good performances until he called it a day in 1988, Padukone never scaled the heights of 1980. But his All England title had a lasting impact.

Sukumar correctly, albeit with a touch of hyperbole, points out: "The All England win did more than just enhance the country's prestige. Within the country it created a revolution. It pitchforked badminton into national consciousness, making it on par with cricket and hockey. It created a reference point for Indian sporting history; henceforth, all sporting accomplishments would be measured against this."

When Padukone gave up a secure job in the state-run Union Bank and turned professional about a year after the All England win, it served as proof to future players that if they were good enough they could survive without the state's benevolence.

The revolution wrought by Padukone inspired many of India's future badminton stars. This was particularly true of Pullela Gopichand, the only other winner of the All England title from India. "Prakash sir was somewhere there on the horizon for me," Gopichand recalled of his early years. "I realised that that All England is the world's most prized and premier badminton championship. The way people talked about it, I could sense it was something big."

It was not just inspiration that Padukone provided to the next generation. He helped shape the future through the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, which began operations in 1994 at the Canara Union, the very same courts where he first learnt his game. Gopichand joined the academy in 1996 and spent a few years there and said that Prakash took pains to play with and train him individually. Not surprisingly, when Gopichand won the All England, Prakash was glued to the television, watching his one-time protégé emulate him.

That link between former stars and the present generation that Padukone set a precedent for has continued with Gopichand and Saina Nehwal. Nehwal, who became the first Indian woman to achieve the world No. 1 ranking in badminton and win a bronze medal in the Olympics, trained under Gopichand at his academy in Hyderabad.

Besides Nehwal there are several other Indian badminton stars, such as PV Sindhu, Parupalli Kashyap and Gurusai Dutt, who regularly win international tournaments. Their excellence in a game that has been around in India for nearly 150 years, and has always been very popular with the middle classes, can be credited to one man and his path-breaking win at the 1980 All England.

Ronojoy Sen is the author of Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India