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HomeBadmintonMithun Manjunath, the working-class shuttler, who won’t back down

Mithun Manjunath, the working-class shuttler, who won’t back down

Mithun Manjunath knows what life at its direst looks like. And it is not when trolls said he had bottled it again after a line misjudgment at 19-19 in the decider, when he chose to leave the shuttle last week and it fell in, playing Malaysian Lee Zii Jia, at the Australia Open Super 500. “Lee Zii Jia was shaky. I fought well even when down,” Mithun says of the 21-13, 12-21, 21-19 loss.

Life at its direst for him, he recalls, was sleeping the night before an under-10 final on a Chennai terrace, after pouring a bucket of cold water on himself to allay the punishing heat. And coming down with fever, because he and his mother, travelling with him for a string of tournaments, couldn’t afford an AC room at a hotel, or even an accommodation with a ceiling fan.

“I know what life is, I’ve seen many downs. My struggles have made me stronger. So whatever it is, I can face it. I know where I’ve come from. And now there’s no looking back. I’ll fight every match,” assures the late bloomer at 25, who beat World No.7 Loh Kean Yew, at Sydney.

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Mithun has learnt the art of figuring it out and fighting back. He played former world champion Loh at the German Open in March, and ran out of fuel because the Singaporean is very fast. It was a brutal loss, but four months on he figured out a means to beat him in straight two sets at Sydney last week.

“It’s how you take defeat,” he explains.

The last time he cried was soon after Covid when his funders for 4 years from 2016 to 2020 decided to stop sponsoring him. He was ranked 120 odd then, and it hadn’t been a good year of results. He was told to come within the Top 50 bracket before they would take him back.

Mithun Manjunath Mithun Manjunath didn’t stop working hard. (BAI)

“I’ve never trained as hard as I did during Covid lockdown,” he recalls of how he responded. He would rise at the crack of dawn and go running to build endurance, chased away by police at times during the lockdown. He didn’t know how it would pan out on resumption, and how he would go on to win the National Championships in 2023, beating Kidambi Srikanth along the way. But he didn’t stop working hard.

The determination comes from his father, who Mithun says worked in the lower rungs of a pharma company in Bangalore, and barely made enough to support his badminton. He remembers returning from quarterfinal exits from Delhi and Chandigarh, and being surprised that his father wouldn’t give up on him, and never asking him to stop trying. “He didn’t give up on me and always believes I will do something,” Mithun says.

Still times were hard, and he would think twice before eating anything when travelling. “I used to eat, but not that much. It was always about calculating if I could afford it,” he remembers.

Mithun Manjunath Mithun Manjunath plays a shot. (BAI)

Mithun says he was lucky to find a mentor and a fantastic early coach in Shiv Prakash, who trained him without demanding any fees. His fluid stroke play and footwork aside, his first coach would buy him racquets which he couldn’t really afford.

While many of his academy mates as sub juniors would travel by flights or in AC compartments, Mithun would be content just reaching tournaments. “In those days when there was no sponsor, a single tournament could cost Rs 15,000 to 20,000 for me and my mother to travel. It wasn’t always easy, but my parents would manage.”

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In 2021 after his sponsor pulled out rather late, he remembers forgoing a Denmark tournament. “I’d given my entry and my friend Kiran George offered to pay for my flight tickets so I could travel. But how could I accept such a huge sum,” he says. His most devastating losses came in the Irish and Scottish Opens when his friends arranged for him to play in the UK, but ranked 120 he would lose early. “I felt horrible because they had spent so much.”

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A job with Railways and a national Championship later, now he is better placed financially with help coming in from the government, but he was glad when the Grand Prix Badminton League auction saw the Chennai team buy his services for Rs 14.5 lakh for 8 days of playing and him landing an annual sponsorship with a startup. A single international tournament can cost Rs 3 lakh, and he also needs to save for his future, while ensuring he plays the top notch tournaments while he’s in good nick.

Much before he started flying out to international tournaments, he remembers rickety bus rides, sitting slouched on the bonnet with his huge kitbag, and the bus conductor glaring at him. Or him crying because his academy mates would buy new shorts and tee shirts and his parents would patiently explain to him that they couldn’t quite afford it. “I would tell them I wanted new shorts, and they would say ‘win the tournament and we’ll see’. But I didn’t win very much back then,” says the Prakash Padukone Academy lad.

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He didn’t win against Lee Zii Jia this time. But losses don’t deter him. They only push him to figure things out. “I have come from zero. I know I’ll find a way out to beat him next time.”

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