It was well past Subhanker Dey's usual bedtime when he wrapped up an upset win, 13-21, 21-18, 22-20, over higher-ranked B Sai Praneeth at the senior badminton nationals in Nagpur on Monday night. The protracted battle between a limping, hurting Subhankar and an impatient Sai lasted over 70 minutes and at the end of it, the unknown, bandana-sporting 24-year-old celebrated like a man possessed. And it wasn't without reason.
Staying with a local family in Copenhagen and turning out for Greve Strands club in the Danish league for most of the year, World No. 67 Subhankar has pretty much lived every player's worst nightmare to get to where he is now -- ran away from home, wandered nomadically for tournaments and training, and survived on the circuit with no coach and little money.
Retrieving everything that the Singapore Superseries champion threw at him, the thin gathering at the Divisional Sports Complex were in for some out-of-turn entertainment, Subhankar went from 9-14 to 18-18 in the decider and Sai was clearly bewildered by the fightback. At the end of his valiant three-game win, Subhankar was cramping, hobbling, wincing but, with raised arms and clenched fists, also celebrating his maiden passage into the senior nationals semi-finals.
It was, after all, the first time he managed to beat a top Indian player after many close battles in the past, he said. "I've played Sai five times before but always lost. This was the break I needed and today it finally came my way." In the first round of the Denmark Open against Kidambi Srikanth last month, the former India No. 1 kept it close in the first game before eventually falling behind.
Like most Indian middle-class families who would trade a limb for the assured comfort of a government job, Subhankar's mother too went ballistic when she learnt that her teenage son was willing to pass up on one such opportunity. To escape a confrontation and follow his dream of pursuing badminton, he packed in a change of clothes and left his Kolkata home. He was barely 17 then. "I knew if I took up that job (in Food Corporation of India) then, it would be the end of badminton in my life. My elder sister encouraged me to move out of Kolkata and continue playing. I had to take a decision right then. It changed my life."
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Coach Srikanth Vad, based in Mumbai's Thane area, was willing to train the promising teen without a fee and Subhankar spent the next two years there, followed by another two-year stint at the Tom John academy in Bengaluru, all the while using up whatever little funds came his way for sessions in Pune or Malaysia. Now, he's on his own. The Danish club, though, has allowed him time off to train and he shuttles back and forth from the Arvind Bhat academy in Bengaluru. "I use whatever prize money comes my way, the salary Railways pays me (he's a senior clerk) and the little money from club match wins in Denmark for playing international tournaments," says Subhankar. "If I'm lucky I can afford three-four tournaments with that money. Being in Denmark also allows me to play a lot of European tournaments which would've been too expensive to travel to from India."
Ranked just behind Parupalli Kashyap, Subhankar doesn't feature in the national camp line-up or among the list of names picked by Premier Badminton League (PBL) teams at its latest auction (interestingly, players ranked lower than him have found a place) and is essentially the rank outsider in the assembly line of Indian men's singles players from the Pullela Gopichand academy.
He carries his camera around, video-recording his own matches and manages to watch those of other players with a little help from YouTube.
"If I get to play the top Indian guys regularly, I might get better," says Subhankar, "I'm hoping after today's match, I'll get a call for the national camp in the next few months."
"I knew if I took up that Food Corporation of India job then, it would be the end of badminton in my life. I had to take a decision right then. It changed my life."
The last time Subhankar was picked for the camp, he says, was three years ago but it didn't work out too well for him. He was placed in the Bengaluru centre with Saina Nehwal while the other top boys were bunched together in Hyderabad. "I felt I wasn't taking away much from the experience so I stopped midway through. While Saina is a brilliant player to train with, the men's and women's games are quite different and not being able to spar with the core group of men's singles players was doing me little good."
Two years ago, Subhankar moved to Copenhagen, where the Danish family he stays with doesn't charge him for rent or food since their teenage son trains at the same club. "In fact, it was their 14-year-old son who first taught me to make an omelette," says Subhankar, laughing.
At the start of every year, he makes a ranking promise to himself. This time, it was to move into the top 50 from the 150-plus region he was paddling in at the start of the year. He's No. 67 now. But Subhankar's economic plight is more or less the same as what it was when he was ranked above 100. He still has no sponsors. The only assistance he gets is from the Pune-based Lakshya Foundation, which gives around Rs 4 lakh a year. While it's welcome, it's certainly not enough. "Before coming for the nationals I bought three rackets so that cost me around Rs 25000," says Subhankar, "I have no savings. Whatever I earn I spend it entirely on tournaments and as long as I'm earning enough to do that I'm happy."
Alone at home in Copenhagen through most of the day, barring his sessions at the club, with whom he's contracted until March next year, Subhankar says he has few friends on the circuit. A typical day starts with a 6 AM session at the club and winds down with a second session in the evening. There's binge movie-watching and cooking thrown in between. "Everything shuts early there so it often gets very lonely. We have dinner together at around seven and then I retire to my room and wait to fall asleep."
On Monday, though, he didn't mind a slight digression from the humdrum of his daily schedule to announce his arrival.