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At Thiruthangal in Tamil Nadu, a dairy king courts badminton gold

Vinay Kamath | Updated on June 05, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

Net a winner: The three-year-old badminton centre at Thiruthangal, near Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, has eight courts besides other training facilities   -  ALL IMAGES: HATSUN BADMINTON CENTRE

A remote town in the State boasts a world-class badminton academy, set up by Hatsun Agro founder RG Chandramogan, that hopes to one day serve an Olympic champion

It’s mid-morning, and boys and girls of various ages are sweating it out in a large hall with eight badminton courts under one roof. Some are perfecting their smashes, and others their backhands and delicate drops, while their opponents briskly chase the shuttles on their side of the court. A clutch of coaches, including the head coach B Rajinikanth, is constantly bellowing out instructions.

This could well be one of the scores of badminton academies that have come up in the big cities, thanks to a raging interest in the sport after the successes of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and others in the international arena. But this is the Hatsun Badminton Centre, far removed from any urban pocket, at Thiruthangal, a small town located just 5km from Tamil Nadu’s firecracker manufacturing centre, Sivakasi. There’s just a single train line to the town, enroute to Tenkasi, a town nestling by the Western Ghats. From Chennai, Thiruthangal is a nine-hour train journey, while the nearest airport is in Madurai, 60km away.

So, how does this remote outpost aspire to churn out champions? It’s the vision of RG Chandramogan, self-made dairy king and managing director of Chennai-headquartered Hatsun Agro Product Ltd, the country’s largest private dairy with revenues of ₹5,000-plus crore in FY-19, which also makes the popular ice cream brands Arun and Ibaco. Having played the sport for 35 years and won the TN state doubles veterans (above 45 years) championship, 71-year-old Chandramogan is passionate about the game.

Special guest: Rudy Hartono, the Indonesian eight-time All-England badminton champ — flanked by (right) RG Chandramogan, managing director, Hatsun Agro Product, and Ajith Haridas, chief mentor, Hatsun Badminton Centre — during a 2018 visit to the academy

 

“We were looking for some appropriate CSR [corporate social responsibility] activity and we didn’t want to do anything that is run-of-the-mill. Today, badminton is next to cricket in terms of popularity. India has had All-England champions from Karnataka (Prakash Padukone) and Andhra (P Gopichand). South Indians have a fancy for this game, so we said, why not we try and produce a champion from TN,” he says. In its three years, the centre’s national-level TN players have gained recognition. Rithvick Sanjeevi became the national junior (under-17) champion in December 2019 in Bhubaneswar, while in January this year, two more boys reached the semi-finals in the under-19 category at National Ranking Tournaments in Chandigarh and Bengaluru. “The day is not far when we can produce a national senior champion,” he adds.

Focus on all-round growth

Though Thiruthangal lies in a fairly dry, rain-scarce region, the approach to the academy is picturesque, with a coconut grove abutting it; the 10-acre complex is set amidst well-manicured lawns that are dotted with pretty frangipani trees, the air heady with the fragrance of their delicately hued flowers.

Hatsun invested ₹26 crore to set up the facility and an additional ₹2 crore for a running track and courts for tennikoit — a game played with a rubber ring that’s popular in this region — complete with floodlights. “Two per cent on Hatsun’s profit before tax as CSR funding is more than enough to fund operations, as the company is making good progress. Funding this won’t be an issue for Hatsun,” says Chandramogan.

Ask him why he chose a remote town for the centre, and he’s quick to reply that this was where he grew up and where he owned a large parcel of land. “The residential facilities we require, the swimming pool, gym, tracks, and the large halls, would all have been impossible in a big city. Kids would have wasted a lot of time commuting to a suburb. In a residential academy like this, the distractions are fewer, and their energies are preserved with no commuting. They attend a school nearby for 3-4 days a week. Their focus is badminton.”

The centre has 64 trainees, most of them from TN and a few from Kerala and Puducherry; of the 37 boys, most belong to Chennai and various districts of TN, including 11 from Thiruthangal and 13 from Sivakasi. The girls come from cities such as Chennai, Madurai and Kochi, as also smaller towns such as Kovilpatti, Rajapalayam and Srivilliputhur.

Drawn from all income groups, the bulk of the trainees are aged 12–18. Nearly half the trainees are residents and the rest travel to the centre daily from nearby areas.

Many of the parents are grateful that a world-class facility has come up in this small town to give their children an opportunity to play at the international level and, they hope, earn laurels for the country. The tennikoit facility at the premises is open only to local children.

The trainees are selected based on performances at the state/ national level as well as trials at the centre. They next undergo a short-term (3-6 weeks) programme to assess their physical, technical and psychological fitness before entering a long-term programme. The fee for the long-term residential programme is subsidised (about one-third of the cost incurred). Performance-based yearly cash awards/ scholarships further help reduce costs for the trainees.

Ajith Haridas, chief mentor of the academy and a former TN state, national and current Masters 40-plus men’s doubles world champion, says that the training is multi-pronged, with focus on physical, technical and psychological aspects. “Data from the game analytics software is analysed for areas of strength and weakness. Based on the current level of the player, yearly, monthly and weekly programmes are drawn up,” he says.

With badminton being among the most physically demanding racquet sports, nutrition, too, plays an important part in the training of a high-performing player. The menu, designed by sports nutritionists, includes pre- and post-workout health drinks, fresh fruit juices and milk and fruit at bedtime. “We avoid refined products in our cooking (no refined oil, taste enhancers or white sugar) and ensure a healthy mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine,” Haridas says.

Indian sportspersons have been known to falter at crucial stages of their performance, and this has been blamed on a lack of mental strength. This, Haridas says, is emphasised at the centre through its ‘inside-out’ approach to training. “If we can get the person’s ‘inside’ (psychological aspect) right, then the other aspects (physical and technical) are easier.”

Psychological skills are imparted by in-house experts, visiting professionals and through online videos; successful people from different walks of life are invited to talk to the trainees. Introspection, journalling, affirmations, meditation, awareness exercises, yoga, and chanting are some of the means used to impart mental and emotional strength.

“We are slowly beginning to see the positive results of our efforts,” Haridas says.

Training for tomorrow

Since its inception, the centre boasts eight international representations, 36 national-level podium finishes (including two gold medals) and about 164 state-level podium finishes in different age categories. “The next focus is to become consistent at the national level (and getting more golds) and then get more international exposure. We hope that by 2024 some of our trainees will be ready to take the Olympic medal that has been eluding us,” says an upbeat Haridas.

During the ongoing lockdown period, the centre has focused on the physical and mental skill development of its trainees.

The higher-performing trainees underwent two physical training sessions that were monitored online by strength and conditioning trainers through the video communications platform Zoom. Other advanced and beginner players were divided into smaller groups, which were monitored day to day by the centre’s coaches. Fitness routines were designed taking into account limited spaces at homes.

Some of the young guns from the centre who have earned laurels at the junior, under-17 and under-19 categories in international and national events include Rithvick, Siddhanth Gupta, Arunesh, Pranavi and Akshaya Arumugam. Two sub-junior girls, Madhumitha and Reshika, had podium finishes at the national level, while Sarumathi represented the country in the under-17 girls doubles, along with Pranavi.

Cock-a-hoop: Siddhanth Gupta (left) and Rithvick Sanjeevi are among the trainees who are shining at national and international events

 

Chandramogan says that he’s in for the long haul. “All our brands in Hatsun have been built over a span of 8-10 years. We haven’t built anything in 2-3 years, so we are prepared to wait, we are used to it. Planting and growing a coconut tree takes time. We are giving the right inputs, and we will get results,” says the confident shuttler.

Vinay Kamath

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Published on June 05, 2020
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