Written by Meera Kalyani
| Kochi |
May 17, 2022 11:22:35 pm
Despite the lack of support and recognition of the sport, Arjun says nothing beats the satisfaction of hearing your national anthem at the podium. (Twitter/arjun mr)
It’s been two days since India did the hitherto impossible– winning the ultimate team title in badminton, the Thomas Cup. India’s doubles specialist Arjun MR is still flying high, just like his teammates Kidambi Srikanth, Lakshya Sen, doubles duo Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and his partner Dhruv Kapila, with whom he formed the second pairing.
The men’s team demolished Indonesia, the 14-time tournament royalty to lift the Thomas Cup for the very first time. According to Arjun, their strategy was simple. “No high hopes; we took one match at a time”, the 25-year-old said, while talking to indianexpress.com.
A meticulously executed master class performance by Srikanth, Rankireddy, Shetty, Sen and Prannoy helped them lift their maiden trophy after previously reaching the Thomas Cup semis in 1952, 1955, and 1979. But the team did face hiccups along the way.
Despite their spirited fight, the Indian men lost to Chinese Taipei in group C match and that impacted their confidence. “As the team suffered a deficit in the group match, many of us took it personally,” Arjun said of the 3-2 loss.
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However, M R believes that the loss played a pivotal role in their journey, as there came a moment when the team bonded as one. “For our team, that loss was monumental, because we realised, we were in this together. It is not often we get to play at a team event. But, the entire squad was there for each other, constantly.”
“Thereafter, we made sure to celebrate all our victories. Especially after the semi-finals where we were assured of a medal. Nothing else mattered to us when we ran on to the court, dancing on the court, media room and chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’,” he added.
Arjun’s personal road to victory was no bed of roses either. He tested positive for Covid-19, with all possible symptoms, a week before the selection trials for the championship.
“I just had three days to get my body back in shape and be ready in whatever way possible and to be honest, I worked really hard, in silence”, the 25-year-old said.
“I eventually went on to win the trials and got into both Thomas Cup and the Asian games team and that was emotional for me, winning it, against all odds,” M R added. “From there on, there was no holding back”. However, for him, that was not the biggest challenge he faced.
Arjun remembered feeling the pressure of expectations from people in and around the fraternity. “Word was going around that the team would ‘go all the way’. Everyone had hope. All our pre-match interviews too talked about how they saw ‘us lifting the trophy”. M R said that it was important for him and his teammates to not get affected by the hype and concentrate on the matches as they came”.
After the historical triumph, the Indian team was showered with praise and good wishes from all around the country as well as the world. But what stood out for the team was the phone call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“It was surreal”, Arjun said, recalling the moment. “I remember our team manager getting a message from the Prime Minister’s office, asking for phone interaction. And within 15 minutes, we get a call from the prime minister himself”.
Describing the phone interaction as a ‘much-needed motivation’, Arjun remembered how the prime minister knew all of their names, the score and who played what. “We were surprised and thrilled at the same time. It was a 10 to 12-minute informal conversation, at the end of which, we got invited to his office, for a personal meeting.”
Arjun, a resident of Cheranallur, Kochi has been playing the sport competitively since he was 11 years old. He currently trains at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. But who knew he would be a part of history, sweeping 3-0 Indonesia in the finals, denying them their 15 title.
“To be a part of the team is huge for me! Being from Kerala alongwith Prannoy is extra special because in my state, the sport is not very popular. I hope my participation and our achievements serve as a ray of hope to many budding players” M R added of a hub that’s always produced excellent doubles talent with explosive jumps.
Though the team dished out a performance for the ages, Arjun emphasied the fact that badminton has a long way to go in the country. He believes that the sport is yet to get the recognition it needs in India.
“There’s cricket, and then there is football. We just won Thomas Cup, which is equivalent to the football world cup—something people are much more familiar with and that speaks volumes.”
“I was surprised when people didn’t know that Pranoy was a Malayalee. For me, that explains a lot about how unknown the sport and its players are in the country,” he added. MR hopes that this gap eventually lessens, bringing much more attention and chances to budding players.
Despite the lack of support and recognition of the sport, Arjun says nothing beats the satisfaction of hearing your national anthem at the podium.
“Never in the history of Thomas Cup or Uber Cup, we’ve heard India’s national anthem and that’s a privilege for those who finish first at the podium. With all of us standing together, saluting the flag and listening to our national anthem, it was proud, yet an emotional moment for us” he said.
Arjun currently stands at world number 40, with his 22-year-old partner Dhruv Kapila. The duo’s career-best was world number 32.
As Asian Games 2022, which were scheduled to be held in September in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, have been postponed until 2023 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, M R hopes to move forward in world rankings through individual tournaments on the circuit.
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