A 'touch artist' called Nandu Natekar
Pune: Nandu Natekar made a generation of sports lovers in 50's fall in love with badminton as he ambled across the badminton court weaving a clutch of magical strokes with his wooden racquet.
The 'touch artist', who inspired generations of Indian badminton, breathed his last on Wednesday after battling old-age related ailment here, leaving a big void in the sport.
The affable ever-smiling Marathi played at a time when badminton was one of the means to stay fit and not the fittest in the business could only compete at the top level.
However his artistry and natural talent was good enough to earn him a place in the quarter-final of the prestigious All England Championship, only the second Indian to do so after Prakash Nath, who was the first Indian to reach the All-England finals just after Indian independence.
While an athlete spends entire life in mastering one sport, Natekar had the curiosity and ability to pick up the strings from multiple sports such as lawn tennis and golf apart from badminton, in which he eventually achieved greatness through a distinguished career.
"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," says Dinesh Khanna, the first Indian to win an Asian badminton title in 1965.
Natekar was known to mesmerize opponents with his deceptive skills and stroke perfection but among all his skills it was the backhand which left his opponents gawk in awe and spectators gaze in admiration.
Khanna too was left fascinated 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 aspect of my game later on," Khanna says.
"Power and smashes were not his forte but he used to make it up with his precision."
Born in Sangli, Maharashtra, Natekar had played tennis initially in his career and even reached the junior nationals final against the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan. But a loss to 1951-52 National junior final to Krishnan saw him switch on to his badminton career.
And what a career it turned out to be as Natekar went on to clinched the Selangor International crown in Kuala Lumpur in 1956, lead the country in the Thomas Cup men's team championship for more than a decade from 1951-1963 and also become the first recipient of the first Arjuna Award in 1961.
Khanna, who was part of the 1963 Thomas Cup, has 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 laughs now.
"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."
A six-time national singles champion, Natekar and Meena Shah had also bagged the mixed doubles crown in Kings Cup International in Bangkok in 1962 and a year later he also won the singles title at the same event.
A former World number three, he had also represented India at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica.
"I had won the first bronze for India in that event," remembers Khanna.
Natekar retired from the sport later that year but he continued playing the age group tournaments for his petroleum company. He also went on to win the World Masters in 1984 and 1989 in Canada and Denmark.
"We used to meet quite often after the Petroleum Sports promotional Board was formed in 1979 and we played for our employers in age group events, all international events such as World Masters," Khanna said.
Natekar, who had the unique achievement of winning multiple national titles in men's singles, men's doubles and mixed-doubles, had also reached the quarter-finals in his only All England appearance in 1954.
He later won the veterans event of the competition in the doubles category in 1980 and 1981.
As Indian badminton soared new heights, Natekar continued to follow the sports.
"He was someone who always had a keen interest in the current badminton players. He had invited me to his house after my All England title. It is a great loss for Indian badminton," India's Chief coach pullela Gopichand says.