There are typically few spectators on court number 4 at the Siri Fort Indoor Stadium. It's the badminton court nearest to the exit and one where those competing in the lowest-profile matches are relegated. The mixed doubles pair of Prajakta Sawant and Yogendran Krishnan, however, did attract some attention even as they lost 16-21, 21-16, 16-21 to the Indonesian duo of Edi Subaktiar and Gloria Widjaja. The pairing of Sawant and Krishnan is a transnational one -- Sawant is an Indian while Krishnan is from Malaysia. While it may be the norm on tennis courts, a transnational partnership remains an oddity on the international badminton circuit.
At the India Open Superseries, there is just one other similar partnership -- the Malaysia-Indonesia combination of Tan Boon Heong and Hendra Setiawan. Heong and Setiawan, who have both held the World No. 1 ranking with players from their respective countries, only decided to come together because their original partners retired after the Rio Olympics.
In Sawant's case, however, the choice of pairing up with a player from another country is borne out of necessity. "It has not been easy for me to find players from India who want to partner with me," she says. Sawant, who as an 18-year-old won the 2011 national women's and mixed doubles title, has found her career flounder. Ever since filed a legal case accusing chief national coach Pullela Gopichand of mental harassment, she has found partners hard to come by. Sawant, who began training in Malaysia after the fracas, has partnered in the mixed doubles with a number of Malaysian shuttlers since, beginning with Mohammad Razif Abdul Latif in 2013.
Sawant and Krishnan decided to pair up in January last year. It wasn't a decision Krishnan was expecting to make. Krishnan, who had represented Malaysia as a singles player a decade ago, was retired from active competition. The 35-year-old was running the New Vision Badminton Academy (NVBA) in Kuala Lumpur where Sawant was training. "I was the coach at the academy there. Prajakta didn't have a partner there so while we were looking for a partner for her, I decided to partner her while we found someone," he says.
It was a partnership that was scuttled almost as soon as it started. "Our first tournament was the Malaysia Open and I remember it went super badly and I told Prajakta, 'You need to change partner. Let's end the partnership,' but she said to wait and give it another tournament," says Krishnan. That tournament, the Syed Modi International, went far better -- after advancing through qualifying, the duo beat a top 30 ranked pair from France before losing in the round of 16.
Since then the team has improved. Starting without a ranking, they are currently No. 43 in the world. This isn't to say that such a partnership is ideal. There are significant benefits to training within a national set-up -- primarily getting to train together. "We don't get a lot of time to train together," says Sawant. "I can't stay in Malaysia for more than a month at a time because of immigration rules. So in the little time we get together, we have to make the most of it," she says. Krishnan has to do some balancing of his own. "Sometimes we train in Malaysia and sometimes we train in Chennai. But the thing is that I am also a coach, so I need to do coaching as well as training. So it makes it tougher," he says. The two usually train separately and only practise together a few days before a competition.
There are monetary issues as well. As Sawant isn't part of the national set-up, she has to herself raise finances to fund her career. Here's where her partnership comes in handy once again. The Chennai branch of the NVBA -- which Krishnan set up a couple of years ago -- is Sawant's primary sponsor. It's a fact Krishnan jovially reminds her of. "I'm both her coach and her sponsor but it is she who will scold me when I play badly," he says.
Indeed, while the going is hard, both players are keen to make it count. "Many players from India have asked me about how this set-up works. Some of them are keen to partner players from other countries but are unsure of going ahead with it. Perhaps if I am successful in this partnership there might be more players who are willing to make the shift," says Sawant.