Introverted, almost painfully shy, Prajakta Sawant is capable of torrents of sudden grumbles when pushed to the wall. That’s precisely where the Mumbai girl sees herself — rightly or wrongly — pushed against the wall, after slapping a court case on national coach P Gopichand and the length and breadth of the system, alleging “mental harassment” and selection bias.
The courts will have their say. But outside, the young doubles player, not more than three years into her seniors international career, finds herself battling a variety of crises.
“Life feels unsettled right now and I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” she says about her limited options. At the Tata Open at Mumbai recently, Sawant, 21, cut a forlorn figure. “Nobody wants to play with me. Everyone’s scared of me. They just don’t talk to me,” she groaned. “My regular partner won’t play with me. So I’m not sure what my next step in my career will be.”
One of the core members of the junior group, having played doubles for the past six years, Prajakta shifted to Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad three years ago, and had been working on her double’s partnership with Pradnya Gadre and mixed doubles pairing with Pranav Chopda. Earlier this year, she had a fallout with her partners and demanded a change of partners. But she wasn’t granted one.
Meanwhile, Ashwini Ponappa — whose regular partner Jwala Gutta is on a break — opted to play with Gadre, which left Sawant unpaired. Her communication with the coach had progressively deteriorated by this time and a series of mis-steps later, the girl found herself back in Mumbai. Now, she says, some of her former teammates refuse to even nod or smile at her.
Prajakta is convinced returning to singles isn’t particularly viable. “I’ve played doubles for so long, I’d like to continue in it,” she says. There are many who think she needs to stick to doubles. “After Jwala and Ashwini, she’s one of the better young talents. But doubles badminton is always a thin line and you will always be judged as a partnership,” says a senior international doubles shuttler.
Badminton legend Prakash Padukone speaks of the urgent need to resolve the issue. “If this continues to drag, the awkwardness is bound to affect the girl’s career,” he says.
Prajakta now trains in Mumbai with Leroy D’Sa, a respected doubles coach in the city. He might well be the best choice in her troubled times, because he’s a stern mentor who doesn’t beat around the bush. “Doubles needs guidance, and Prajakta will have to work hard from here. But she’s a good player, and I’ll help her through this,” he says.
Prajakta paired up with his son Nigel — primarily a singles player — for the Tata Open mixed doubles as well as the Syed Modi GP Gold in Lucknow.
She’s playing alongside seasoned singles players Trupti Murgunde in doubles, another blessing in disguise, given that Trupti can guide her. “She’s definitely talented and has a good hand and should look at rediscovering her rhythm, develop more strength,” she says.
The duo plan to play a couple of national-ranking tournaments end January in Hyderabad and then Bangalore. “If we’re playing together, we’ll need to practise more,” she says, quietly confident that the two can eke out some success from the partnership.
But finding a long-term partnership will be difficult as the only academy that can boast of a decent number of doubles players is Gopichand’s. “They are all wary of playing with me,” Prajakta says, looking less like a firing cannon who’s taken on the national coach and more like a troubled youngster.