Shuttle diplomacy

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RITAM MITRA on Yogen Bhatnagar, who retires after 12 years as international badminton umpire

Indian badminton recently raised its profile significantly when Saina Nehwal, widely regarded as the best player in the world outside of China, clinched a bronze medal at the London Olympic Games.

There’s another star of the international badminton circuit closer to home, though.

Yogen Bhatnagar, former sports editor of Indian Link, is a face that is familiar to many readers. Yogen retired from international umpiring of the sport recently.

Having spent 12 years as an international umpire, Yogen has officiated in no less than 50 international tournaments in almost every corner of the world – including the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, World Championships, All-England Open, Canada Open and Singapore Open.

Yogen was introduced to the game of badminton by his father Brijraj Swarup at the age of just 5. Labelling him as “inspiring” and “one of the sharpest brains in sports and in organising national level tournaments,” Yogen credits his father with his sensational achievements in the sport – encompassing somewhere in the vicinity of 50 titles over the years, including a stint as the captain of the star-studded national team. Yogen also drew inspiration from his mother and sister, as well as the sacrifices and support of his wife and son.

Although a shoulder injury cut his promising career short in 1994, it is a testament to Yogen’s positive attitude that he took up umpiring in the same year, to remain involved in the game.

He progressed rapidly from being a club level umpire in 1994 to becoming the first and only international umpire in NSW by the new millennium, where he officiated at the World Championships in Spain. “I still remember the hug I received from my father whose dream I had realised,” reminisces Yogen.

Although badminton is a sport where finesse and touch are paramount, it is also the fastest racquet sport in the world at the international level – where the shuttle can reach speeds of up to 421 km/h. Speaking about what it takes to be a successful international umpire, Yogen offers some fascinating insights into the challenges he was faced with.

“It (being a successful international umpire) requires a thorough knowledge of the laws of the game, uncanny vision, control and quick interpretation. Physical fitness, concentration and strict discipline are needed to sustain the highest level of performance in week-long tournaments. On a typical day you may be required to umpire up to 20 matches from 9am till well past midnight without any rest. Combined with this, you may have to adjust to the time difference and the freezing climate of certain European countries. I still recall walking from the hotel to the stadium in a snowstorm in Montreal,” reveals Yogen.

Speaking of the pressures that come with umpiring, especially in the finals in front of packed halls, global television audiences and the world’s media, Yogen confesses that it’s not as easy as umpires make it look. “It is not uncommon to have your hands trembling when you make the opening announcement. Games are for players and the umpire is there only to facilitate the game in accordance with the laws. If you do the right thing you hardly get noticed; however, the moment you make any mistake, you attract the wrath of everyone!” he says.

Yogen compares the rivalry between the players of Malaysia-Denmark and Indonesia-England “as intense as perhaps the rivalry of the Ashes.” As a result of this fierce competition, Yogen says, “The most difficult tournaments to umpire are the team events (such as the Thomas Cup) consisting of players from these countries.”

Although Yogen relates very well to the players, he acknowledges that there is a great rivalry between players and between countries, especially between players from Asia and Europe. “While badminton is truly a gentleman’s game with a strict code of conduct…a few players are known for their short temper. But the hallmark of a good umpire is to be in control of the match at all times,” he adds.

Although he acknowledges that Asian giants China, Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia are in a league of their own, Yogen thinks Saina Nehwal is the best badminton player (either male or female) India has ever produced. Saina has more than a dozen singles titles and Yogen thinks she “has the potential to become number one and seal her place in history as the finest badminton player.”

Having officiated in the matches of almost every top badminton player in the past, as well as the current crop, Yogen says that he has formed a close bond with them off the court. “However, once you are in the umpire’s chair, you forget everything except the laws of badminton which you have to administer in total fairness, regardless of your nationality or ethnicity. I have known most of the top Indian players from Prakash Padukone, Gopi Chand, Aparna Popat and Saina Nehwal very closely. I have formed a very special bond with Saina who epitomises the best qualities as a sportsperson,” says Yogen. He has known Saina since her stunning debut at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, and is a very close family friend of her father, Dr Harvir Singh.

Yogen, having umpired in more than 500 international matches, admits that sometimes he might not have made the right call (which is perfectly understandable given the shuttle is hurtling left and right at 400 km/h and the crowds are screaming at 100 decibels).

“Once at London Airport at the end of a tournament, a Korean doubles player (Gold Medallist at the Athens Olympics) confessed to me that the shuttle touched his hair before his partner returned the shot – I had failed to pick up the nick.  Inadvertent mistakes are acceptable; however, there is no excuse for not knowing and interpreting the laws of badminton – failing to do so will cut short your umpiring career,” he states.

Yogen was recently given the honour of umpiring the finals of the French Open in Paris as a gesture of acknowledgement of his contribution to the game.

“It was a fairy-tale finale to my 12-year career as an international umpire. It is impossible for me to describe in a few words the enthralling time I have had during my years as an international umpire. It is not just watching and admiring the best badminton players from the best possible seat, but also learning and appreciating different cultures and the remarkable world we live in,” says Yogen.

Even after such a rollercoaster of a journey, Yogen is by no means done with the sport– with such a vast arsenal of knowledge and experience at his disposal, he has been invited to join the Badminton World Federation’s elite referees’ team, a less stressful position which will allow him to stay involved with badminton at the highest level. Whatever lies ahead, Yogen can definitely look back on his time and know that he has left a positive mark on his beloved sport.

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