"I think I'm going to start training again," nine-time national champion Aparna Popat jokes, after the hike in the National Championships prize purse, now pegged at Rs 1 crore, was announced. To lure bigger names into the largely-forgotten, nearly irrelevant yearly national championships, the Badminton Association of India (BAI) has opted for a ten-fold jump (total prize money was previously Rs 10 lakh), and taken the surest path: Money.
Going from an open tournament which had foreign players participating until well into the 1960s, being known for the feisty contests it set up (Middle-aged faithful would recall Rajeev Bagga's upset victory over Prakash Padukone) and the big names (Padukone, Syed Modi and Pullela Gopichand for instance) who held sway over it for sustained periods, the event has, over the past decade, been reduced to an avoidable week in the calendar.
Shorn of star players, who are already following a packed events diary, BAI has struggled to draw big sponsors and has been left to host the event at odd locations with poor facilities. Often, thanks to mindless scheduling, matches at the Nationals are played well past midnight and even into dawn. All of this is enough to drive big players, who're already in blinker-focus mode - chasing international titles and a bigger leap in rankings - away from it.
"Yes, it (matches at odd hours) happens all the time," says Sai Praneeth, who's made seven appearances in the tournament so far and was the top seed in the Chandigarh edition last year, "Also, facilities and courts should be good if we want our best players to participate. I think increasing prize money is a great idea and will work to raise the standard of the tournament."
BAI mulled the idea of making participation at Nationals compulsory before seeing through its own folly. For now, big money and the promise of matches being hosted at international-standard facilities and at reasonable hours, the federation feels, will work. "After a very long time almost all our senior players will feature in the Nationals in Nagpur this year. This, I presume, is a good beginning for Indian badminton," Sarma remarked. Top players, including Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, he says, have promised their participation for the November 2-8 event in Nagpur. Saina, who won the 2006 & 2007 titles, hasn't featured in at least seven editions now.
Further, starting this year, top players will be offered direct entry into the quarterfinal stage of the tournament. A quarterfinal appearance could fetch a player Rs 1 lakh, while a place in the final will fetch Rs 5 lakh. "Just like PBL, we want to project the Nationals as a brand and bring in TV viewership. Once the big players step in, big money will also follow," adds Sarma.
Until a decade ago, a player had to win National titles in order to be sent for tournaments abroad. It was a time when both exposure and funds were starkly limited. Now, nothing hinges on anything to do with the Nationals. Unlike the 12 Super Series and 18 GP events already dotting the year and vying for attention, there is no category under which the tournament could be positioned or made to appear compelling, barring the ubiquitous national pride factor.
Now, a bulging prize purse possibly overrides it. "The tournament has transformed beyond recognition," says former national chief coach SM Arif. "Players obviously don't feel the need to play it anymore and it has lost relevance. But we need to find a way to consistently bring in top players so that the next rung of players can be groomed."
When you look overseas, you'd find top players, the likes of Peter Gade (Denmark) and Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia), having shown up at their respective national championships year after year, winning 20 national titles between them. Here, between India's top three players across men and women - Kidambi Srikanth, PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal - the total number of National titles would struggle to cross five.
A revamp of the domestic circuit had to start somewhere and big money at the Nationals is a well-intentioned move. A sustained presence of top players at the tournament, though, might need something more. We don't have all the answers just yet.