On 2 March 2014 a tall man with curly hair, lean but strong, walked into the RWE-Sporthalle in Mulheim, Germany. He wore a t-shirt that read “Bhat”, with “India” printed right below it. Arvind Bhat, at 34, was the oldest men's singles player in the tournament as well as in the Indian team. The lanky yet determined Indian had entered the finals of the German Open Grand Prix Gold.
It was drizzling on the evening he stepped on the court. The match was scheduled at around nine in the night. He had followed his routine perfectly that day. Being a regular practitioner of the Sudarshan Kriya and Pranayam, he knew the importance of focusing on his breath. He was constantly keeping a tab on the intake of his breath and the speed at which he was letting it out.
Arvind that day had not talked much to anyone. There was no discussion about the strategy to play Hans Vittinghus from Denmark, a player who has one of the best defences in the circuit. The Indian shuttler had decided to rely solely on his instincts. The same instincts that almost 12 years ago guided him to take up badminton professionally and choose a path less traveled, especially since he already had an engineering degree in his hands.
Before I get to the German Open and Arvind's historic win, it is crucial for me to talk about his journey. It is a journey that is nothing short of fascinating. The journey is always more interesting than the destination; the destination never teaches us anything, but it is the path that has all the lessons.
Nothing about Arvind's badminton career is conventional. If you ask every top player in India today when they started playing serious badminton, the average answer would be anything between 10 to 13 years. If you ask the same question to Arvind his answer would be 22. Yes, 22!
Arvind had almost quit badminton as he was pursuing an engineering degree. He did engineering like any other conventional student, regularly went to college and attended the majority of classes. He would play badminton as a hobby three times a week whilst also doing odd jobs for money to cover his expenses.
His main objective at the age 18-22 was not trying to hit the shuttle on the lines but making money to support himself. Destiny, however, had other plans. The then 22-year-old boy got his first sign from the universe when he got a break to represent the Indian team by reaching the final of the National Championships in 2002. With Pullela Gopichand winning the All England Championship, Arvind’s eyes glistened with hope.
Whilst most professional players start weight training at the age of 14, Arvind was 8 years late. He did his first running and weight training session that year. And it was only four years later, at the ripe age of 26, that he was introduced to the concept of diet and supplementary nutrition.
After joining the party pretty late compared to his contemporaries, Arvind realised there was a lot of catching up to do. But he also knew that this was what he loved and enjoyed. Whether it be the training, the hard work, the sacrifices, the wins or the losses, he took everything in stride.
However, at 22 years of age, it takes a substantial amount of bravery to completely switch your life trajectory from being an engineering student to becoming a full-time professional athlete.
Courage is a very rare thing to possess and Arvind's was put to test a number of times all through his career. In fact, injuries were a regular occurrence in his early years on the circuit; a serious injury in 2006 that needed surgery had threatened to finish his career.
Arvind marched on with just one aim in his mind – winning at least one big international event before he retired. However, by the time he reached the peak of his career, he was playing opponents at least 4-5 years younger than him. They were faster, fitter and stronger than him. But if he was ever worried about this, no one ever saw it.
I had won my first senior national the same year Arvind won his second national title. That year in the final, he beat Parupalli Kashyap. I remember very vividly that for most of us, Arvind did not stand a chance.
Kashyap was in such great form; he seemed very hard to beat. But all of us witnessed one of the most clinical, sharp, and brutal finals we had ever seen. Arvind won the match in straight games and showed us all some of his best badminton ever.
But in the years to come, we got to know that was not his best badminton. Arvind’s best badminton came two years later in 2014. This time not just India, but the whole world took notice.