Prakash Padukone Talks About How He conquered All England

"Even on the day of the final, I had taken the train, carried my kit, and walked to the court."



Prakash Padukone's eyes twinkle as he says these words in a matter-of-fact tone. We are talking about the journey he took, 37 years ago in the fourth week of March, from the YMCA in central London to Wembley, about a 25-minute ride on the underground tube.


The match Padukone is referring to, of course, is the final of the All England Championships in 1980.

We are sitting inside the Barclaycard Arena, which has become the host for All England since 1994. Padukone has just finished speaking at a hospitality event organised by Badminton England for a select gathering of 150 guests on his All England triumph.

"It was the greatest win for me and Indian badminton," Padukone tells the crowd, each of whom has paid 140 pounds per head. His maiden and only All England title, Padukone said, was "historic." Only one Indian has won it since then - Pullela Gopichand, Padukone's protege, in 2001.

It was March 23, 1980 when Padukone won the title, silencing his arch rival Liem Swie King of Indonesia.

"My strength was at the net. I got a very good length in the sense I made him run to all four corners so even if he smashed I was able to return comfortably. The moment I got what I wanted, I was in control. King was under pressure"
Prakash Paduokone on the 1980 final against Liem Swie King

King had been the defending champion for the previous two years, and as the world No.1, he was the clear favourite to win a hat-trick of All England titles. King had even decided to skip the European tour events to arrive fresh to the tournament.

However, Padukone himself arrived in a confident state of mind and body to the tournament where he had failed to go past the quarterfinals in his previous three attempts.

In 1973, Padukone had come to the All England for the first time. He was 18 years old and lost in the quarterfinals. The following three years, he could not play the event due to issues out of his hand.

On his return, he reached the quarterfinals in 1977 as well as the following year. In 1979, Padukone withdrew due to a foot injury which he had aggravated during the Denmark Open. He had hurt his foot originally during the Indian Test series against Malaysia on the "cement courts" in Penang.

But in 1980, Padukone acclimatised himself nicely to the cold weather by playing and winning the Denmark Open and the Swedish Open in the two weeks prior to arriving in London.

"I was very confident, but I was not thinking about winning the tournament. But the two victories, back-to-back, had given me a lot of confidence. I was always focusing on one match at a time but feeling confident that I could do well," Padukone tells ESPN, recounting the tale of 1980.

In the past, the notorious 'Wembley drift' had bothered the Indian. But not this time.

"I was well prepared. I had a strategy in mind (using which) I could control the drift much better than most others. That was one of my strengths."

Padukone, the No. 3 seed (behind King and Morten Frost Hansen of Denmark), had a smooth ride into the final. He brushed aside England's Brian Wallwork, then recorded a 15-7, 15-0 win over Sufian Abu Bakar of Malaysia. Another dominant victory (15-0, 15-10) against Indonesia's Hediyanto was followed by losing just four points each game against Svend Pri of Denmark.

Then came the toughest test for Padukone in the semis where he faced another upcoming young competitor in Frost, who played clean strokes and was fast on his feet. But a 15-8, 15-10 victory, put Padukone in his first final.

Padukone, who was 24 at the time, had not lost more than 10 points in a game in the entire tournament. He was ready for King.

Speed and the smash, two of King's lethal weapons, were silenced by Padukone with clever tactics. In his own words, he slowed the game down and tested the Indonesian's backhand.

"I was keeping the shuttle more on the baseline. I was slowing down the pace of the game and making him play to my game. I was in control of rallies."

Padukone still believes it was his deception that forced King on the back-foot and played an influential role in the victory.

"I would make him move just a fraction of a second late, because I was holding back my stroke. If he was expecting a toss, I would play a drop. If he was expecting a drop, I would play a stroke. He couldn't anticipate and stand there and be in an attacking position."

Padukone's attacking game and half-smash frustrated King. The first game lasted barely eight minutes, with the Indian winning 15-8.

The final was a totally different experience for King, two years younger than Padukone. The Indonesian had beaten the Indian without losing even a game in their four previous encounters. Did King then have a psychological edge?

"No," Padukone says, shaking his head. "The four times were at different points of time in my career. Those defeats were a while ago, coming at different intervals."

Counter-dribbles at the net, high serves and easy lifts allowed Padukone to quell the challenge that King tried mounting towards the middle of the second game.

As King started hitting hard, Padukone was deftly placing with delicate wrist work. Covering for Sportsweek, a former Indian sports weekly magazine, Shirish Nadkarni, a former player himself, heard a fan exclaim: "King whacks the shuttle, Prakash seems to caress it."

Padukone's memory of the match point remains vivid.

"It was at the net. He dribbled and I dribbled back, he tried to tap and I moved forward to the net (and finished the point)."

At the time of victory, Padukone had summed up the match as a "tactical win" over King.

"My strength was at the net. I got a very good length in the sense I made him run to all four corners so even if he smashed I was able to return comfortably. The moment I got what I wanted, I was in control. He was under pressure."

So when he won, what did he do? Did he throw the racket or leap in the air with gusto and punch his hand with excitement as the players these days do? Thirty-seven years later, Padukone tries to paint the feeling he experienced.

"I was absolutely thrilled. I just did this (raises both hands to his chest with clenched fists)"

Padukone had gone one step further than his namesake had done in 1947; Prakash Nath was the first Indian to reach the All England final, where he lost to Conny Jepsen.

Padukone won a medal and about 1000 pounds for his victory. "Materially I did not benefit at the time. But you can see the difference - even now I am known as the former All England champion. It gave me the name, fame. Maybe it gave me only 1000 pounds, but it made a big difference."

As he says, it was no doubt a dream come true. It took him a long time, Padukone says, to understand the significance of his win.

"I did not realise that it would have that kind of an impact. It was like any other tournament - okay, slightly more bigger than the Danish and Swedish Open, which I had won in the earlier weeks."

When he started getting trunk calls from across the globe, it dawned upon Padukone what he had achieved.

Padukone retired in 1989. He never won the All England Open again. But his 1980 victory was the turning point for him and Indian badminton. "Indian badminton came to be recognised as a force to reckon with."

Surprisingly, Padukone just has one photograph of this momentous moment in Indian sport.

"That, too, is in the album," Padukone says, flashing that simple and endearing smile. And what about the ride back to his room in London? Did he then take a tube back to the YMCA?

"After I won, someone from the Indian embassy was there so they offered me a car ride. Otherwise, I would have taken the tube."

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