The baroque city of Saarbrucken on the Western edge of Germany features a smattering of Indian players this week. Most of them trudging through the rough end of wins, points and rankings. There are also little-known foreign players thrown into the mix.
In this phalanx of journeymen at the SaarLorLux Open, there's an unexpected star - Former World No. 1, five-time world champion and easily one of badminton's biggest names, Lin Dan.
On Thursday, 25-year-old Subhankar Dey's return clipped the net tape, trickled onto Lin's half of the court and the Indian walked with slow, leaden steps, his head lowered and visage inscrutable, to clasp his idol's hand at the net. "It's the most happy a match result has made me and the least I have ever celebrated," says Subhankar.
It was also his dream come true. One that threw him into an odd spot of wanting to scream his lungs out after the final point in his 22-20, 21-19 win or clamp it all down out of respect for the player he grew up watching and worshiping. He went with the latter. Of course, at 35, the Chinese great is well past his best days and defeats aren't new to him anymore.
But for Subhankar, this is a first -- of not only seeing his favourite player walk out of the match videos he's watched on loop and onto the court opposite him, but also to beat him in well under an hour.
"I sat up the previous night watching some of his recent defeats to players like Tommy Sugiarto and Kantaphon Wangcharoen, whose style is similar to mine. But since I hadn't faced him before it was a struggle to get to this result. I don't think he's lost the touch, but physically, maybe, he isn't the same anymore."
An outlier in the Indian badminton setup, Subhankar, who's based in Copenhagen, isn't picked for next month's Premier Badminton League. Last year too he wasn't chosen to be in the original pool of players even though those ranked below him were drafted. He was only brought in by Bengaluru Blasters at the last minute after one of their players, Harsheel Dani, picked up an injury. But he's made peace with what isn't coming his way. "I think I'll just see it as time to train hard the whole of December," he says. It will also offer him a relatively long window to spend time at his academy, which he set up in April this year in his home state, West Bengal.
Right now, the academy named after him and managed by his siblings in Sodepur, Kolkata, has two courts, 60 trainees and a three-member coaching team headed by an Indonesian. He has plans for expansion and is banking on state government support. For a player, setting up an academy at 25, when he's in the thick of dealing with his own results and ranking fortunes, isn't common. But Subhankar says he wants to give back to the sport while he still can.
"I played on cement courts as a kid. But I want children in my home state to have access to better facilities. Our coaches look into not just the game of these kids but also their nutrition. If there's a problem, they call me. It's still early days for us so we're getting used to dealing with complaints. I also see someone like Viktor Axelsen who runs his own brand and is doing his bit for badminton in Denmark and I tell myself, 'if a top guy like him can find the time, what stops me?'"
The World No. 4 was also among the first to text Subhankar a congratulatory message after his win on Thursday.
As the year winds down, Subhankar is only delighted at the two major goals he's ticked off his list - a badminton academy back home and a win over his idol. He has a few more tournaments in the next few weeks and is putting off buying a new phone till as long as the current, battered one falls apart.
For now, he is focused on living it. One dream at a time.