Tokyo Paralympic Games bronze medallist Manoj Sarkar’s goal now is to defeat world No. 1 Pramod Bhagat. Sarkar, 32, has lost to Bhagat, the Tokyo Paralympics gold medallist, seven times at the international level in 11 meetings.
The losses at the 2019 world championship and the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics hurt Sarkar the most. He does not want a rerun in the world championship and the Asian Para Games later this year.
“I am working hard on this aspect. It is hurting my progress a lot. I have the confidence to beat him at the forthcoming championships. But for that I need to work on my mental strength,” Sarkar said, on the sidelines of a training session in Lucknow.
“We are friends in doubles matches and I carry that feeling to the singles events. That shouldn’t be the case. Recently, a friend told me about this mental barrier and advised what to do to overpower Bhagat,” said Sarkar, who hails from Uttarakhand.
Sarkar lost to Bhagat in Group Play Stage of Group A at the Tokyo Paralympics 10-21, 23-21, 9-21. Before that, it was 18-21, 16-21 at the 2019 world championship in Basel.
“On both occasions, I tried to give of my best but the mental barrier of playing against ‘big brother’ Bhagat prevented me from winning,” said Sarkar, who has 13 international medals.
Out of his three gold medals at the world championships in SL3 category, he won two partnering Bhagat at the 2013 and 2019 editions. In 2015, Sarkar won the gold medal in doubles with Anand Kumar Boregowda at Stoke Mandeville, England.
“I have been asked to treat Bhagat only as an opponent while playing in the singles, and there should be no other thought. I am taking the help of a psychologist to get mentally strong. I am sure that by the Asian Para Games (Oct. 11-16, at Hangzhou) and the world championship (Nov. 1-6, at Tokyo), I would be ready to challenge Bhagat as I want to win a gold medal in singles too,” said Sarkar.
Sarkar said he also needed to work on his speed and placement against his experienced rival. “Bhagat has a very good speed and ability to cover the court well, and I am working on this aspect, too,” he said.
Sarkar said his mother got him his first racquet for ₹10 when he was two years old as his cousins never allowed him to touch their racquets. “In fact, the day, I took hold of my own racquet, I had just one dream to beat my cousins, and I did it soon. That win ignited my passion for the sport.”
Sarkar, who suffers from a lower limb condition (polio) since childhood, used to watch his seniors play badminton in an open court at the Adarsh Indira Bangali Colony in Rudrapur while sitting on a wall outside.
Sarkar also said that he used his mother’s sari as badminton net while playing with friends in open court. “We could not afford a net,” said Sarkar, adding, “I did painting and many other household works to buy shuttles.”
“I didn’t know anything about para-badminton but I was passionate about the sport. I would beat physically-able kids so easily but I was never considered among them due to my disability. In 2007, I defeated 22 kids at my school. Only then, I was picked for the state championship.”
Sarkar, however, thanked coach DK Sen, father of world badminton championship runner-up Lakshya Sen, who advised him to try his luck in para-badminton.
“Sen Sir’s advice changed my world as he told me that I have the potential to play for India and win medals at the Paralympics. He gave the (phone) number of national para-badminton coach Gaurav Khanna,” Sarkar said.
He also said that he didn’t leave the court when he first got a chance to play indoors in Kashipur. “It was amazing and I kept playing throughout the day. Things have changed a lot since 2011 when I started playing para badminton,” said Sarkar, an Arjuna award winner.