From a small town on the outskirts of Mumbai, a city with a population of over 20 million, an Engineering aspirant just like 1 million others every year transpired a truly remarkable player that changed the face of Badminton at India’s highest-ranked B-School and one of the finest in the Asia Pacific. Nagendra Puranchand Sharma is not a world champion, not the greatest of all time but a player who left his mark on the game in his unique style. His highest accolades in the sport were a silver medallist at the State Championship and being ranked at the Badminton Association of India (BAI) alongside India’s elites.
A figure of amusement on the outside lay beneath was a profoundly motivated and focussed individual who was exceedingly earnest about the ambitions he laid out for himself, a side hardly anyone had seen. Sharma’s incredible rise as a badminton player out of the blue did not surprise people who knew him, but rather his decision to pursue the sport professionally did raise a few eyebrows amongst his close ones.
On asking his parents what their thoughts were when Sharma first broke this news to them. They said: “We have always backed him and will continue to do so. We never had second thoughts in our minds, nor did we ever ask him to keep a backup option if he failed in this pursuit. We gave him complete freedom.”
Seven years since he embarked on this new journey, he still looked at it as a decision of immense courage and backing his instincts. He said: “You know you’re late when you decide to play a sport professionally at 17.
“You are a minimum ten years behind people you are to compete against. Your effort has to go up tremendously even to come close to standing a chance to reach a high level. I consider myself very lucky.”
It’s not as if Sharma had never held a badminton racket before or needed to learn how to serve. But playing in your backyard out of love for the sport and wanting to make a name for yourself required massive upscaling, but he was up for it. On advice from his coach, Nitesh Kumar, Sharma was sensible to realise within the first six months that it was too late to compete in both men’s singles and mixed doubles. He then decided to opt out of men’s singles and continued his journey in mixed doubles as he claimed he found an ideal partner, a rarity in the Indian badminton scenario.
After years of unadulterated effort and dedication to transmute his aspirations into reality where Sharma left his home at 4:30 in the morning to reach for practice at five, from where he left for his undergrad college and returned to the court for light drills and a gym session in the evening. His journey began to gather speed in 2019 after a string of failures for almost two years. He had reached three consecutive finals, winning one, but was brought to an abrupt halt as Covid struck fear into people’s livelihoods. The entire nation was sent into lockdown for almost two months.
This was the most detrimental time for upcoming athletes as they were the ones who were not catered to at all. All professional athletes were well looked after to help them maintain excellent physical and mental conditions. But what about the future generations who were devoid of the services?
Sharma said: “It was easily the most challenging time in my short career as a pro. I felt helpless. I started stress eating and put on a lot of weight, which again was a setback to my mental and physical health. I managed to come out of this, and there is only one person who made it possible for me, my coach.
“He showed belief in me as much as I did in myself, if not more. As soon as restrictions were lifted, I still recall that I practised eight hours with him on weekdays, and weekends were for rest and recovery.”
Sharma soon grabbed consecutive golds at the district competitions and was called up to the national sports academy to train with India’s bests. He trained alongside Chirag Shetty, current world number 8 in men’s doubles and London Olympics medallist and former world number 1 Mathias Boe, the present Indian badminton doubles coach. Sharma became a recurring figure in the camps and tournaments that followed all across India. He was soon ranked in the top 50 in mixed doubles.
When asked about Sharma’s meteoric rise, his coach Kumar said: “His winning or losing is none of my concern. He coming every day and giving his best is all that matters to me. If I praise you in your good times, I am destined to admonish you after your bad matches. It is important to stay neutral in terms of results and focus on the process.”
The boat sailed smoothly for Sharma as he had just qualified for his first national tournament main draw but what came about next was a nightmare for every athlete. Sharma sustained a tear in his groin, and the doctors advised him to stay away from the court for at least a year. He spent the first four months in denial, and only then, when he truly realised the extent of his injury, he started looking at other options in life.
Speaking about his injury, he said: “The first thing that came to my mind after I realised I would not be able to play badminton further in my life was how my partner would continue as it takes immense practice to be able to play well with your partner and it takes years. After my injury, she started playing singles and still played for India.”
Sharma soon cleared his head and decided to close this chapter for now. He managed to get into India’s best B-School after he cracked the entrance with a 99.4 percentile. Badminton played a vital part in his selection in the interview process as the interviewer was immensely impressed from Sharma’s sporting accolades rather than a very ordinary academic record.
He became an integral part of the sports committee very soon, upon which he realised it was his turn to give back to the sport that had given him so much. He took it upon himself to set up a sports culture and succeeded immensely. He coached both the men’s and women’s badminton team at the Xavier School of Management, adding to his vast list of achievements which already comprised finding and constituting the first-ever badminton team at his undergrad.
Looking back at his success, he said: “You always hear the saying, you should aim at number 1. I feel most people make the mistake of aiming too ahead of themselves. I learned very early on that if I wanted to stay hungry, I needed to set one goal at a time. You cannot set a goal for which you do not have a blueprint.”
He interviewed Mathias Boe and asked questions about the Indian badminton scenario compared to that across the world, spoke about the latter’s achievements and, most notably, how he remained in the right frame of mind most times.
His coach Nitesh Kumar candidly recalled a conversation with him who once asked him whether he had taken the right decision to pursue badminton at this age and would he benefit anything from it. He said: “I told him if he felt his peers who do not play badminton are doing better than him by a significant margin, he was free to leave it. But if that is not the case, he would spend all of his free time partying and doing useless things. You either take out time for something you love or think you do not have the time. Free time is a myth.
“Moreover, this is a chance many aspire to have, do not disrespect it. Just give your 100 per cent. Your juniors are watching you. is this the senior you want to be?” Since then, Sharma has never looked back.
Sharma is a management trainee at one of the leading companies today but still firmly abides by everything that sport taught him: humility, determination, hard work, and discipline. It sent us a forever echoing message that it is never too late. He still actively participates in all kinds of sports just not professionally anymore. He said: “I sometimes get sad about not playing for India or starting very late, but this is way better than if I had never started playing. That would be regret, and this is just grief.”