Monday, April 24, 2006

My stint in Denmark

In June 2005 I decided along with my coaches Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar that it would be a good learning experience to move to Denmark and play for a club for one season. It would no doubt help me to play with Denmark’s best players and it would also make travelling around Europe to play in international tournaments very easy if I was based in Denmark. So with this I mind I left for Copenhagen on August 26th 2005.

I’ve to take care of everything?
I was met at the airport by Kasper Fangel, coach of Skaelskor Badminton Club, the club I was to represent. Kasper was only 26, but he was already semi-retired, playing only in the Danish league. He drove me to his office where we had lunch (a sandwich, what kind of a lunch is that?) and had a talk regarding where I would live, what would my schedule be during the week, which tournament I would participate in during my stay there, etc. I thought I would leave after the meeting to go to Skaelskor (where I would live with three other players of the same club), but I was wrong. Kasper informed me, very matter-of-factly, that we would first have a training session in Copenhagen, after which I would go home!

I had just been through a 26-hour journey, what with all the waiting in various airports and the many connections I was forced to make as a result of booking my tickets late. I went along for the training as I didn’t want to come off with a bad first impression.

When I finally got home after a one-hour train ride, a 30-minute bus ride, and a 10-minute walk, I was pleasantly surprised to see the size of the house that I would live in for the next eight months on and off. There were four bedrooms, one for each player staying there. There was Agus Wijaya, an Indonesian; Atu Rosalina, also Indonesian, and Anastasia Russkikh, a Russian.

Staying on my own was a new experience as I hadn’t done that before. It felt nice to have my space, to be able to make my own decisions, but the novelty quickly wore off when I realized I also had to do my own laundry, cook my own food, clean my own room, etc. I had always been pampered at home by my mom, I’d never done my laundry, let alone cook my own food or clean my room. I quickly learned to cook a little bit of barely edible food which still took me a lot of time to prepare until I bought a microwave and discovered the wonders of re-heated food.

Another thing I was going to have to get used to was the commute to IBA (International Badminton Academy). I had to take a bus, train and then another bus to get to the academy. It took me about two-and-a-half hours approximately, so if I was training from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. I had to get up very early. Later on, the manager of SBK (Skaelskor Badminton Club) allowed me to use his second car to drive myself to the academy. This was great as it saved me something like three hours a day.

Living in Skaelskor
Living in Skaelskor was unlike anything I had experienced before. Skaelskor is a small town near the sea with a population of only about 5000. Coming from Bangalore where the population is something like 6.5 million it was quite strange to see empty roads, supermarkets which aren’t crowded all the time and open spaces in general.

I learnt quickly that prices in supermarkets are very different and there are some shops to avoid as the same food you can buy elsewhere is much more expensive there. The house we (four players) were staying in was owned by the manager of SBK who lived in another house that he owned. We were each given a cycle to get around in Skaelskor. The badminton hall was about 10 minutes away by cycle and the supermarkets, salons, restaurants and bakery were about the same distance.

Training in Denmark
I was going to IBA three days a week i.e. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and had club sessions two days a week: Tuesday and Thursday. Any physical training that I wanted to do was up to me. There was a gym which wasn’t very fancy but had all the necessary equipment and there were woods where I could do any running that I wanted to.

The training in IBA was very different from back home in Bangalore. In Bangalore, the training sessions would last approximately 3 ½ hours and I would be on court for about three hours, either playing or helping someone. In IBA, the sessions were two hours only, including warm up and cooling down after training. It was more intense of course, but I always felt the sessions could’ve been longer.

Michael Kjeldsen , head coach at IBA, would have me figure out for myself what I needed to work on, and how I thought whatever problem I had could be solved. This was again different from Bangalore and it made me start thinking more about the game, always a good thing. Another difference from the training back home was the fact that in Denmark, I would play a lot more games during the training. In Bangalore, I would play games twice a week at the most but here I would play games about four-five times a week! This meant that I was competing a lot more, and against players who didn’t give a damn whether you were the Indian national champion or not. It helped, but again, I’m not too sure that its something I want to continue always, because there has to be a lot of drills in the training to improve any stroke I feel needs improving.

Like I said earlier, any physical training that I wanted to do was up to me. I had a schedule made for me by Kasper for running and there were mostly interval runs in it as Kasper explained to me that that was what the Danes believed was the best kind of training for badminton. I would do most of my weight training with a junior player from the club, Rasmus Hansen, who was eager to learn what kind of weight training I was doing in Bangalore. It always helped to have somebody to train with as it just felt less boring.

Tournaments around Europe
I had a schedule of tournaments to play during my stint in Denmark which included two Grand Prix events and about four A grade events. I won my first International title when I won the men’s singles at the Hungarian International in October. I didn’t really play so well after that for a few events as I was getting tired of being in Europe. The cold weather, gloomy skies and the change in food wasn’t easy to get adjusted to. I found myself entering in tournaments and on arriving at the venue, would wonder when I could get back. This, of course, isn’t what you want to be thinking about when you arrive for a tournament. Ideally, you want to be looking forward to the competition, feeling fit and strong and generally feeling pumped up. In hindsight, I guess I could’ve planned my schedule a little better, playing fewer events and training more.

Apart from the Hungarian International, I reached the semifinal of the Scottish International in November which I felt was an okay result and I had a couple of good wins before losing to Wacha of Poland in the semis. I cramped very badly in that match, or I would’ve had a chance in the third game.

I also played the Danish Open which was a five or six-star event, one of the biggest tournaments in the IBF calendar, where I lost to Kenneth Jonassen of Denmark in the second round. The score was only 15-2, 15-6 but I felt that I played okay, and I feel if I get another shot at him I can do much better. I was also in the quarterfinal of the Iceland International in November. All in all, I could tell that though there wasn’t any big difference in my technique or fitness for that matter, the difference in me since coming to Denmark was that I was more open to accepting drift in the badminton hall, bad hotels, bad food and different conditions in general. That doesn’t mean I was not affected by drift in the hall, but I was not bothered by it as much as I used to be.

Team Matches
Denmark has probably the best league in the world. All the Danes play in it, as do most of Europe’s top players. This is a big part of the reason that Denmark seems to be able to produce so many players of good quality. The juniors in Denmark are exposed to world class badminton from a very young age. The highest division is the elite division and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd divisions follow. There are eight teams in the elite division and every year the bottom ranked team gets relegated to the 1st division and the top ranked team from the 1st division moves up to the elite division.

Skaelskor had just moved to elite in 2005 and that’s the reason I was invited to play for the club, as they needed more players to stay in the elite. At the start of the season, I was to play second singles as I was lower ranked than Kasper Fangel (who played first singles) in the Danish rankings. I moved up to first singles I the second half of the season though. I played 10 team matches in all of which I won four and lost six. I had to play a couple of matches the day after I landed in Denmark and I had a tough time being ready for those matches. But to be honest, I didn’t perform as well as I know I can. I guess I had a hard time playing the matches, there’s a lot more pressure in these kind of matches because you’re playing for more than just yourself. Again, I guess the experience of playing these kind of matches has helped me.

Downside of being in Denmark
Not everything about my trip to Denmark was positive. For example, I missed the Asian Badminton Championships which was held in India (Hyderabad). This was a four-star event and I could’ve earned a lot of ranking points playing this tournament. I also missed the India Satellite which was held in Delhi. Playing an international event in your country helps in the sense that you know what conditions to expect and are probably used to it. I also ended up missing a lot of Indian ranking tournaments and as a result went down to No.4 from No.1 in the ranking list.

Another area where I felt I would’ve improved if I hadn’t gone to Denmark is physical fitness. In the first 3 ½ months that I spent in Denmark I played seven team matches, six International tournaments and one domestic tournament. This left very little time for training and I guess my fitness did suffer a bit.

Before I left for Denmark, Prakash Sir had told me exactly what I would face and as it turned out he was absolutely right. He told me that I would find it hard in the first couple of months, but would then get used to it and start to enjoy it. He said that I would come back not sure of whether or not it had helped but would realize on being back a few months that it did in fact help. I guess the only thing he said would happen which didn’t was me eventually liking the chores around the house like cooking and laundry.


devsan said...

Beautifully written piece. Keep writing, and all the best for the Thomas Cup and the rest of the season.

Str8 Talk said...

Firstly welcome to the world of blogging.
You really surprised me, I'm impressed by the clarity with which u have written ur 1st post.

Cheers keep updating ur blog...