'True legend', 'Godfather of Indian badminton', 'Best backhand in the world': Badminton fraternity salutes Nandu Natekar

Nandu Natekar was a 17-time national champion. Gaurav Natekar

India's badminton fraternity on Wednesday mourned the death of badminton great Nandu Natekar with chief national coach Pullela Gopichand describing him as a "true legend" of the game, while Vimal Kumar credited him for his initiation into the sport.

Natekar, who played a bit of cricket and tennis at the national level before becoming an international player, died in Pune on Wednesday.

The 88-year-old, who won over 100 national and international titles in his career, was suffering from age-related ailments. "For us, he is a true legend in Indian badminton. He is someone who is well-respected and we have heard stories about him. He not only played badminton but tennis at the highest level. He belonged to that era, where he, along with Suresh Goel, Dinesh Khanna and Prakash Padukone, his name will be up there," Gopichand told PTI.

It was tennis' loss but badminton's gain as Natekar could have continued with the former had he not lost the 1951-52 National junior tennis final to Ramanathan Krishnan.

"He was soft (spoken) person and a great gentleman. He was affectionate and always had keen interest in present day badminton. He had such precision and understanding of angles, he was an athlete because he could adapt to tennis and badminton," Gopichand said.

"He had such beautiful hands, skills and also his movement." Former India coach Vimal Kumar said his father was a big fan of Natekar and that's how he got into the sport.

"My father was a big fan of him and in fact it was after he saw him during a national event at (then) Trivandrum that he put up an outside court at our house and that's how I got initiated into badminton," he said.

"I could only see him play when he won the veteran All England in the 1980s. He was as popular as the cricketers in the 50s and people used to line up to watch him play."

Dinesh Khanna, the first Indian to win an Asian badminton title in 1965, said that Natekar was a man of many talents. "He had the tactical acumen and natural ability to pick up sports very fast. He played tennis at the junior nationals and also dabbled in golf in his old age, quite unique for a sportsperson. He had a fine touch."

Khanna said that he was fascinated by watching Natekar play as a 13-year-old at the 1956 Junior Nationals in Delhi.

"It was my first national and I was awestruck to see his backhand. I could never imagine that it could be played with such fluency and finesse. I picked it up from him and it became one of the important aspects of my game later on," Khanna said.

"Power and smashes were not his forte but he used to make it up with his precision." Khanna, who was part of the 1963 Thomas Cup with Natekar, had a lot of memories from that tour. "I had played him in the finals of 1963 Thomas Cup selection tournament but he didn't allow me to play my natural game. The next day headlines would say it was a contest between a 'Tutor and a pupil'.

"Later when I beat him in the 1965 Nehru memorial, even then papers next day said 'A contest between artist and artisan'. I was irritated," he said.

"I had a good time with him being part of the 1963 Thomas Cup. In that six weeks, we travelled to New Zealand, Thailand and Malaysia. Soon a friendship had developed between us."

Abdul Shaikh, who played with Natekar in the Maharashtra team before shifting to Canada in 1967, remembered Natekar fondly.

"I am very sorry to hear this news. He was one of the most stylish and graceful international players I have seen in my life," Shaikh, who went on to coach the Canada badminton team, told PTI from Vancouver.

"I had partnered him in India Open in the 1960s. We had lost to Malaysia in the finals. He was someone who actually picked up his superb backhand from Wong Peng Soon of Malaysia. He was such a superb stroke player and had beautiful footwork." Natekar was also a good singer, according to Shaikh.

"We used to travel in trains for international and inter-state events and he used to be a good singer. We used to play antakshri," he said, remembering the old days.

Former India player and doubles specialist Uday Pawar also reacted with sadness at the news.

"It is a sad day. He was reputed to have the best back-hand in the world and it is sad we could not have any of his video films to watch, to know really how great he was," Pawar said.

"He was the best player Maharashtra has produced in badminton."

Dipankar Bhattacharajee, who represented India at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympics, described him as the "Godfather of Indian badminton".

"...I think even Prakash Sir used to draw inspiration from Nandu Natekar Sir. So, I mean, what can you say, he is the Godfather of Indian badminton," he said.

"I didn't see him play but the greatest moment of my life came when in one of the national ranking tournaments in Pune, Natekar Sir was the chief guest and he gave me the first prize, so that is one memorable moment for me.

"I am not able to express myself at this point, it is a huge loss to Indian badminton and I just wish that his soul rests in peace..."