I was living in in England in the 1980s. I shifted my base from India to England after my graduation. Prakash Padukone was the no. 1 player of our time, whereas Syed Modi was our national champion. I was the no. 2 player during this time. I moved to England to pursue the sport full time and had signed a contract with a badminton equipment manufacturing company, Slazenger. As a part of the contract, they wanted me to coach the youngsters in their leisure centers in a way where they used to conduct camps basically for the promotion of their product. One of the greats of British badminton, Gillian Gilks also joined me. Both of us would go to some of these training centers, and especially schools and colleges to teach the students and that's how I got into coaching. It was after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, I flew down to India from England, Prakash flew down from Denmark and along with Vivek Kumar of Karnataka, we decided to start our own academy in India. And that's how we started the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy. Since then, I really got a platform to continue coaching. We were one of the first private academies then all over the world. Badminton wasn't doing that great in India and now with these experienced names, we were recognised.
Prakash Padukone (extreme left) and U. Vimal Kumar (extreme right) at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy
In our academy, we were always coaching the elite group of players. Our priority was to help national-level players do well at the international stage. Top players of that era, including Gopichand joined our academy and subsequently, I became the coach of the Indian team. This is when I came across Saina Nehwal. The 16-year-old Saina rose to prominence during the Commonwealth Games, and we know how she evetuallly became one of the best players in the world who won the bronze medal in the Olympics. After the Olympics, she hit a low phase in her career and wanted to come down to Bangalore to train with us. She came down and trained with me for three years. The best thing I liked about her was her strong will. It was really a pleasure to work with her. Because of her strong personality, she could achieve whatever she wanted. Of course, in many of the important tournaments, she lost in the finals. Yet she became the no. 1 player in the world. I was happy to be there with her and help her come out of the tough phase she was going through.
Saina has reached limitations now. It is tough for her because she is of late getting very prone to injury. If she is not in pain, I believe she can still deliver fine. At this moment, only Saina and Sindhu are the two girls who are at a real-world level. We haven't got anybody of that caliber yet. They two are our biggest hopes.
We have so many bright prospects under our tutelage at this moment, I really enjoy working with Lakshya Sen. He's just 19 years old. We have nurtured him since he came to our academy in Bengaluru at age of nine. He's a quick learner and has a good temperament. He has already beaten some of the best players in the world. He has shown promises but then again, he is a bit prone to injuries. The whole of 2020 was a big disappointment. These young players, who are trying to make breakthroughs, need to be in competition continuously. The long hiatus can break someone's confidence. I am sure Lakshya will recover and prove out to be the next big star in Indian badminton. Then we have a few other very young ones like the Manipur boy, Meiraba, Kiran George, and Mithun. These are some of the youngsters who we feel have the potential to do well in international badminton.
I was a science student from Kerala and growing up, academics was a big priority. During our time, many played sports to get admission either in medicine or engineering. When I was the no. 1 junior player in India, Prakash became India's best player and one of the bests in the world. He won the All England Championships and we all wanted to be like him. I was so inspired, I sacrificed my medical seat and pursued badminton. My mother was a teacher who was upset by my decision but my father was happy with it. At least they gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. I finished my graduation and moved my base to England. And I was fortunate enough I worked with Mr. Padukone and set up this academy.
U. Vimal Kumar with Lakshya Sen
These are pretty unusual times, the entire 2020 didn't have any competition. And I believe everybody - from players to coaches were going through a difficult phase.
In Bengaluru, at least at our academy, we were able to commence our activities from May once the nation-wide lockdown was lifted. Though the coaches and trainees were all away, we could get on with our training program as early as June.
Today, I believe Sai Praneeth and Srikanth Kidambi would be our best bet in men's singles badminton for the Olympics. But Sai is also injury prone and Srikanth has been going through a rough phase. In October 2020, he played the Denmark Open, which reflected his caliber once again and it was good to see him gaining form slowly. Then of course, in men's doubles, we have two very talented players like Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. In women's singles, I still believe, any one of Saina or Sindhu has the potential to win a medal at the Olympics.