An articulate and thoughtful commentator on the sport, he was ranked world No. 17 in his heyday and wrested the French Open title. He has also contributed to his beloved badminton, assisting Indian great, Prakash Padukone, in setting up an academy in Bangalore which produced some of top players, including P. Gopichand, Aparna Popat, Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhat. Kumar has also been part of BWF’s (earlier IBF) coaching programmes in Malaysia (1999), Cape Town (2000), Auckland (2001) and the European summer school (2006). He was chief coach of the Indian team when Saina Nehwal began showing early signs of her prodigious talent.
Now, on the eve of another Olympic Games, he is naturally nostalgic while also eagerly contemplating the prospect of India getting on the badminton podium in London. The country’s hopes for such glory most likely rest on Nehwal’s racquet, he acknowledges, citing how much of a following she enjoys at home, particularly since winning Commonwealth Games gold in Delhi in 2010.
“India has always had the following and people have played badminton, but it was never promoted well here. The Commonwealth Games made a lot of difference, as more money came into the sport from 2006 onwards. Now the game has grown…we feel we have a chance to win a medal at these Olympics,” he noted.
“Saina winning in front of the home crowd at the Commonwealth Games has had a big impact. Everyone also remembers the last Olympics, when she was leading Yulianti but went on to lose.”
Indeed Nehwal’s agonizing quarter-final demise at the hands of Indonesian rival Maria Kristin Yulianti in Beijing lingers in her compatriots’ memories. Having seized the opening set 28-26, the former perished 14-21 15-21 in the remaining sets. Kumar is among those who will be urging her on to a different conclusion next month at Wembley Arena.
“It will be interesting to see how she fares. She has beaten the best players. Her fitness has improved. Saina will be seeded, and that will ensure she won’t run into the top players in the opening round…I would say the competition is open. The Chinese are dominant in women’s doubles but, in the other events, it’s fairly even. In the women’s singles, Saina, Juliane Schenk and Tine Baun are the main threats to the Chinese,” the expert assessed.
Kumar well appreciates the pressure on athletes heading into Olympic battle. Though it’s 20 years since his own experience at that level, he remembers the events surrounding his qualification for Barcelona well.
“I qualified for the 1992 Olympics towards the end of my international career. I was nearly 30 years old. The qualifying process was quite tough. I had had chicken pox and other viral illnesses and my ranking dropped from 20 to 28. There was a lot of pressure. Two other Indians, Dipankar (Bhattacharjee) and Madhumita (Bisht), qualified with me.”
The trio can count themselves as part of history as badminton had never been played in the Olympic Games before Barcelona 1992. Unfortunately Kumar bowed out in the first round, losing to eventual bronze medallist, Thomas Steur Lauridsen of Denmark. He recalls Indonesia was the dominant team with Susi Susanti taking the women’s singles and Allan Budi Kusuma the men’s singles. Park Joo Bong came out of retirement and landed gold in the men’s doubles.
“I saw one of the best matches in badminton, between Hermawan Susanto of Indonesia and Zhao Jiahnua of China. Zhao was supposed to win as he was world champion and the top seed. Susanto won by retrieving everything,” the Olympian recounted.
“He won the first game 15-2, and was leading 14-5 in the second game, but Zhao took it 17-14. Susanto again led 14-4 in the third; Zhao made it 14-14, but Susanto won the game.”
The 1992 Games will always be treasured by Kumar, not just for the unique honour of representing his country, but also for priceless encounters with sporting celebrities from all over the world.
“I’d taken part in the Commonwealth and Asian Games, but the Olympics was totally different. We watched some of the athletics events. Carl Lewis was dropped from the US team for the 100 metres, but was later included in the relay team, and helped them win the gold. Linford Christie won the 100 metres. I knew him because I was based in England and used to train at Crystal Palace and he used to come there.
“We were in the dining area and (German tennis star) Steffi Graf came and sat opposite us. That was a great experience. All the athletes – about 15,000 of us – were given Ray Ban glasses. That was really nice.”
As a coach at Athens 2004, he was thrilled to meet Swiss tennis ace, Roger Federer who was then a rising star but who is currently savouring his seventh Wimbledon triumph. Another tennis champ, Andy Roddick of the USA, was always being mobbed “because he was on top then”.
Looking back, Kumar reckons coaching at the Olympics is tougher than competing.
“As a player you don’t need to worry about anything apart from your match. As a coach you need to organize and arrange for your players’ practice sessions, monitor whether they’ve eaten and rested properly, and assist them at practice sessions. As a player, if you lose, there’s nothing else to do, but as a coach you need to double up as manager.”Vimal Kumar is a popular personality in badminton who has seen and done most things in the sport.