Till about the early seventies all the leading Indian badminton players were from the north. Followers of the sport were aware of the notable feats of Trilok Nath Seth, Nandu Natekar, Satish Bhatia, Dinesh Khanna and Suresh Goel. Badminton was not really as popular in the south though of course it was played at the state level.

Players from the south took part in the nationals but failed to make an impact. In fact ball badminton a team game consisting of five players on each side and played outdoors with a little fluffy ball was more popular as it was a sport that was largely restricted to the south.

All that changed during the 1971-72 season.

A 16-year-old lad from Bangalore won the national title and over the years emerged as the greatest Indian badminton player of all time. As a pioneering path breaker Prakash Padukone has few equals in Indian sport.

Superbly fit and mentally very strong he not only made the game popular in the south but his impact was felt all over the country. He became the first Indian to win the all England title in 1980. Hyderabad’s Pullela Gopichand emulated his feat by winning the prestigious title 21 years later and as it has been seen the south has produced several superstars and champions over the years.

But this dominance has its genesis at the corporation indoor stadium in Madras (as Chennai was known then) in January 1972. By then Prakash Padukone was one of the promising junior players in the country but few saw him go beyond that - except perhaps Rudy Hartono. The legendary Indonesian who won the All England title eight times was Padukone’s big hero.

As luck would have it Padukone while playing in the Bombay Gymkhana invitation tournament as a 15-year- old ran into Hartono in the first round. Hartono predictably won 15-2 and 15-7 but so impressed was he by the show put up by the teenager that after the match he told the press ''you have a future world champion in Prakash.’’

Even though it was Hartono who made that remark no one took it seriously, putting it down to the great player just being polite towards his much younger opponent. Padukone however was even at this stage not just another promising young Indian player. He was very fit, had the hunger for success and was mentally very strong for a teenager.

The 1971 nationals should normally have been held in December but because of the India – Pakistan war it was postponed to early 1972. Padukone was a member of the Mysore (as Karnataka was then known) contingent as a junior player but he was also a participant in the senior event.

Indeed Prakash Padukone had entered five events in all the others being junior doubles, men’s doubles and the junior inter-state team event.

He first helped Mysore win the team title and he was immediately marked as the favourite to take the junior singles title. In the meantime he took part in the senior singles where he was not expected to proceed beyond the first couple of rounds.

But an unexpected victory over KK Cheema put Padukone in the quarterfinals where he was up against an opponent he had idolized for many years – defending champion Suresh Goel. It seemed all over when Goel won the first game but Padukone raising the level of his game took the next two to assure himself of a berth in the semifinals.

The result was nothing less than a shock but hardly anyone could have envisaged Padukone’s dream run to continue. And yet it did with another upset victory over the third seeded Romen Ghosh. Again Prakash Padukone lost the first game but won the second for the loss of only two points. In the decider Romen raced to a 11-4 lead and surely it was now only a matter of time before Padukone’s challenge came to an end. However giving an early example of his never say die attitude and high fitness levels Prakash rallied from this seemingly hopeless position and went on to win for a totally unexpected place in the final.

In the title clash he was up against Punjab’s Devinder Ahuja another first time finalist. It really was anybody’s match but Ahuja moved into the favourites circle when he won the first game. Yet again Padukone fought back to take the second. The decider was a thriller all the way. The tension was palpable and the packed crowd were on their feet cheering every point, the cheering being a little louder when he won it. Nerves too predictably played a part in the proceedings.

Padukone took an early 5-0 lead, Ahuja leveled and then went ahead 13-10. Prakash leveled at that score and went ahead 14-13.Ahuja made it 14 all before Padukone surged ahead to led 17-14 for match point. Ahuja staved this off and dramatically leveled at 17 all. Then ensured a point for point tussle with the serve changing hands before Padukone on his serve decided to leave a return from Ahuja. It fell out by an inch! Incredibly a 16-year-old from the south was India’s ace badminton player.

Half an hour later Padukone was back for the junior singles final which he won easily. That was three titles for him but the one that really mattered was the triumph in the senior singles final. Now everyone agreed that Hartono was not just being polite a little over a year before; he had the foresight to predict his greatness.

Prakash Padukone won the national title throughout the seventies before Syed Modi ended his run in 1980. In 1978 Padukone had won the gold medal in the singles event at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada and two years later came his greatest triumph and one of the greatest feats by an Indian sportsman.