Putting Manipur on the badminton map: Duo of Manjit-Dingku spark change
Neighbours, friends and now partners, Manipur's budding badminton pair of Manjit Singh Khwairakpam and Dingku Singh Konthoujam plan to make it big at the Badminton Asia Team Championships.
When you think of Manipur's tryst with sports, conditionally enough a montage of judokas, boxers and weightlifters crowd the mind; badminton is a faraway thought. Considered to be fixated in Southern India, badminton's boom is regionally concentrated one may think - but Manipur's bubbling and bustling doubles duo of Manjit Singh Khwairakpam and Dingku Singh Konthoujam are all set to dilute this notion and put Manipur on the badminton map.
Fiddling with Bluetooth, camera angles and a trying Internet connection, Manjit and Dingku settled in for an interview with The Bridge, ahead of debuting in their first-ever senior Badminton Asia Team Championships (BATC 2022) sitting in different rooms of their Malaysia hotel.
All of 20 going on 21 in 2022, neighbours turned friends turned partners - Manjit and Dingku, hailing from the far North-East are in the big leagues now, ready to take on the senior badminton circuit, side by side, and they can't contain their anxiety (what with the pandemic!) and mostly excitement as they step out on the court for the Indian national team.
Alongside the latest badminton singles sensation, Meiraba Luwang Maisnam who just won the Iran International Challenge 2022, the pair of former U-19 India No. 1 of Manjit and Dingku are bringing about a badminton revolution to Manipur with their exploits - both nationally and internationally.
From winning the U-17 title in the All India Junior ranking Tournament in 2016 to clinching the top honours at the U-19 national ranking tournament or even making it till the quarters of the Asian Junior Badminton Championships at Jakarta in 2018 - Manjit and Dingku have been up and coming!
Rising to prominence without any coach or even a proper wooden court to train on, Manjit and Dingku were fated to play badminton. Although they train now at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad and have recent semi-finals runs at Bahrain International Challenger 2021 to look back upon, the BATC 2022 will be their first-big event in the senior team.
Badminton by chance
In Ningthoukhong, a village in Manipur's Bishnupur district, Manjit and Dingku grew up with only a lone cement badminton court to try out their gully badminton skills, sans a proper coach to even train them. Playing more by instinct and not by design since their initial days of taking to the sport, Manjit and Dingku's climb to becoming the No. 1 U-19 doubles players in the country, is not short of any fairytale run that is filled with hope.
"We didn't have any particular coach growing up. There was one former national level player, Oinam Santosh, he is like an uncle from our village…but he had a different job as well, so he wouldn't be regular..and that apart it was just us on our own," Manjit recalls.
"We taught ourselves whatever we knew and we went on to become runners-up in the U-13 nationals in 2014! It was that random," Dingku mentions sheepishly, stifling a smile.
But where did it all start for these two boys in love with sports and clearly with a bromance of their own?
Knowing each other since their middle school years, Manjit and Dingku, albeit at first belonging to different friends circles, gradually merged with each other on the field - over cricket, football, marbles and of course, badminton.
Acting as their chief catalyst, it was Manjit's father, Ranjit Singh, a former athlete himself, who saw the badminton dream for Manjit and Dingku and the seeds of it were planted - to put Manipur on the badminton map, to take Ningthoukhong to better days and hopefully, chase an elusive Olympic medal.
If you aren't dreaming big, is it even fair to dream then?
"My father loves sports. More than pushing us towards academics, he would urge us more towards sports. He was a sportsperson too - running, football, volleyball, you name it. He was ready to do anything for sport and the way he cared for the both of us was amazing," Manjit mentions, still in awe of the kind of hard work his father, a government employee had put in for them.
"We don't have a proper court in our village. Just one cement court which isn't even ideal for badminton," Dingku Singh mentions, named sportingly after Asian Games gold medallist boxer, the late Dingko Singh.
Indeed, back home things are stark for Manjit and Dingku who may be rewriting the badminton narrative, little by little, but they haven't received any special perks or sponsorships from the State yet. No matter their achievements, little has changed in Manipur. Save for their MLA, Govindas Konthoujam who is very recently supporting them, Manjit and Dingku are functioning without any kind of sponsorship now.
But that's not the only trouble at home.
"Whenever we are in our village nowadays and we want to play badminton, teach the interested kids from whatever we have learnt so far, even now we have to wait for the seniors to stop playing…they just while their time, not letting the kids play," Manjit rues, a little sadly.
Spotting the rookies and firing the dream
Powered by this rookie luck and raw talent, Manjit and Dingku soon came into the radar of International Chief Referee H. Gyaneshwar in the fag end of 2015, during the State championships. Impressed by their on-court understanding of each other, it was Gyaneshwar who approached Chief National Coach, Pullela Gopichand with these two new fledgling findings from Manipur.
Since then, Manjit and Dingku haven't looked back, joining the Pullela Gopichand Academy in April of 2016, where they continue to train still.
"When we first arrived at the Academy, it was a moment of awe as we got to see our favourite seniors play in front of us. There was Saina didi, Sindhu didi…Srikanth bhaiyya, Satwik-Chirag, Sumeeth Reddy..," both jogged their dazed memory back the years.
Fine-tuned for doubles since the beginning, Manjit and Dingku's focus have never wandered to singles and whenever they spar against each other, the head to head apparently is still at a tie.
Specifically trained by Arun Vishnu at the Academy, it was in Hyderabad that the rookies found strategy and method to their on-court madness with the racquet and shuttle and the improvements started to show immediately.
"We play a lot like Satwik-Chirag, you can say. While I stay close to the net like Chirag, Manjit takes care of the back like Satwik..moreover, our coach also saw this in us and we've stuck to that" Dingku mentions.
Fanning over India's top doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, Manjit and Dingku find a lot of similarities with them.
"Back when we had joined the Academy in 2016, they (Satwik-Chirag) were not so trained and polished…but right now they have the experience, the diet, the mental strength and they have put in so much hard work to be the World No. 8 pairs they are today," Dingku expressed.
On the cusp of making the transition, from junior to senior now, Manjit and Dingku may have taken up badminton as fun and games without too much serious thought, but now, once in the middle of international competition, Manjit and Dingku also cradle the Olympic dream brightly in their hearts.
'Manipur can dominate Indian badminton'
It hasn't been an easy road for Manjit and Dingku - their journey filled with obstacles. Even if the country is ready to recognise their talent, the state is still somehow not fully supportive. Fair enough, a boom has taken place in Manipur ever since Manjit-Dingku and Meiraba started fetching medals at national and international events but the battle is only half-won.
"What we desperately need back home is a foreign coach for the budding players, find the talent at the grassroots, districts and state levels…The Manipur Badminton Association needs to take the job more seriously and have it done in a more structured way," Dingku helpfully suggests.
"We are physically very fit during our growing years - as we are from the North-East, our build is slightly different," Dingku tells The Bridge. Coaching with Indonesians at the Gopichand Academy, Manjit and Dingku have learned a lot, similar as they are to the Indonesians, in terms of structure and build, the duo pointed out - a thing to be also considered for Indian badminton's future.
"Right now, Manipur has a lot of players coming up in badminton, but sadly, we don't have proper training facilities yet back in our State, even though there is so much success…our village still doesn't have a wooden court," Dingku mentions, hoping their performance at the Badminton Asia Team Championships will help.
"I talk to a few junior players and I have learned that the schedule that they train in currently is a complete mess...there is a SAI coach but there isn't a proper set-up to hone the talent at home," Dingku enlightens.
Interjecting, Manjit continues, "We need to have a structure as well. That will help Manipur grow as a badminton-strong state and we can dominate in India, I'm sure," he suggests.
Slowly but steadily towing Manipur into the nation's badminton map, Manjit and Dingku are on a mission bigger than themselves and hopes that their performance at the BATC 2022 will only serve as further proof of their talent and draw attention to the far corners of the country, that obliviously enough, is brewing with untapped talent.
The Badminton Asia Team Championships 2022 begin on 15th February at Selangor, Malaysia and the Indian men's team has been placed in Group A alongside defending champions Indonesia, South Korea and Hong Kong. Acting as qualifiers for the Thomas & Uber Cup Finals in May, the BATC 2022 is a crucial event and Manjit-Dingku will hope to make the most of it.