Indian, Aparna Popat ruffles through the pages of her memory until she settles on the chapter where she is a 20-year-old competing at her first Commonwealth Games.
The year is 1998 — much before Saina Nehwal‘s Olympic bronze or PV Sindhu’s silver four years later. The Indian are yet to make acquaintance with terms like heavyweights or favourites, which currently accompany them to badminton arenas around the world. Simply put, the sight of the Indian contingent didn’t quite make their opponents quake when they walked onto the court. Not then.
Popat, at 40 years of age, recollects her 20-year-old self-staring at the scoreboard at the arena in Kuala Lumpur. The score shows that she’s trailing 1-9 in the third game with a spot in the women’s singles final on the line.
opat remembers saying a line over and over in her mind. Almost like a chant. “If you lose this match, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” The words have their effect. Popat mounts a seemingly improbable comeback and wins. She goes on to lose in the final, but silver as a colour is more reassuring than bronze.
“I was probably the junior-most player on that Indian team, but there were expectations of me. Were there nerves? Definitely! Pressure? Definitely!
“To go there and get a silver medal, I probably played out of my skin. For me, it was the best way to kick-start my career. Until that point, I had done well at the junior level, winning a World Junior silver medal just two years earlier,” Popat said a few days before the start of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games( Indian).
Popat’s silver didn’t just symbolise the coming-of-age of a single shuttler. That edition, Kuala Lumpur 1998, saw something else click in the Indian badminton contingent.
Coached by the trailblazing Prakash Padukone, the Indian badminton contingent returned with four medals, with the men’s team claiming silver and the women’s team winning bronze. A male singles shuttler, who goes by the name of Pullela Gopichand, too claimed a bronze.