Pune: One of Indian badminton's earliest superstar Nandu Natekar, whose on-court grace was often compared to a ballet dancer, died on Wednesday after suffering from age-related ailments here.
The 88-year-old, who won over 100 national and international titles in his career, is survived by his son former Davis Cupper Gaurav and two daughters.
"He passed away peacefully at home and we were all with him. He has been ailing for the last three months and he passed away peacefully," Gaurav told to PTI.
Natekar, who was considered one of most popular sportspersons of his time, had the distinction of playing multiple sports, including tennis and badminton.
Born in Sangli, Maharashtra, in 1933, 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 'Junior National' final to Krishnan saw him switch over to badminton.
Natekar, a six-time national singles champion, made his India debut at the age of 20 and went on to lead the country in the Thomas Cup men's team championship for more than a decade from 1951-1963.
Recipient of the first Arjuna Award in 1961, Natekar was known for his artistry with the racquet, mesmerising his opponents with his deception skills and stroke perfection.
He created history being the first Indian to win an international event -- the Selangor International crown in Kuala Lumpur in 1956.
He and Meena Shah had bagged the mixed doubles crown in Kings Cup International in Bangkok in 1962 and a year later he also won the singles title against all odds at the same event.
A former World number three, he had also represented India at the 1965 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica.
He also won multiple men's doubles and mixed-doubles national titles during his career spanning 15 years and 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.
Later in his life, he also dabbled his hands in golf, trying to bring down his handicap but poor health didn't allow him to continue playing the sport.
Former India opener late Madhav Apte was one of his closest friends and people who knew Natekar termed him one of the greatest sports lover. He would be seen watching any form of sport with a smile that never left his face.
Tributes pour in
An inspiration to many stalwarts of Indian badminton, the legendary Nandu Natekar's death on Wednesday was mourned by his fraternity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi also paying homage to his outstanding sporting legacy.
Condoling the death of Natekar, Modi said his achievements will continue to motivate budding players.
"Shri Nandu Natekar has a special place in India's sporting history. He was an outstanding badminton player and a great mentor," Modi tweeted.
"His success continues to motivate budding athletes. Saddened by his demise. My thoughts are with his family and friends in this sad hour. Om Shanti," the prime minister said.
Sports Minister Anurag Thakur described Natekar as "an exceptional badminton player."
"In 1961 he was conferred with the prestigious Arjuna Award. A generation of athletes have drawn inspiration from him. Sincere condolences to his family & friends," Thakur tweeted.
Chief badminton national coach Pullela Gopichand described Natekar as a "true legend" of the game while Vimal Kumar credited him for his initiation to the sport.
"For us, he is a true legend in Indian badminton. He is someone who is well-respected and we have heard stories about him. He not only played badminton but tennis at the highest level. He belonged to that era, where he, along with Suresh Goel, Dinesh Khanna and Prakash Padukone, were up there," Gopichand, India's chief national coach, told PTI.
It was tennis' loss but badminton's gain as Natekar could have continued with the former had he not lost the 1951-52 National junior final to Ramanathan Krishnan.
"He was soft (spoken) person and a great gentleman. He was affectionate and always had keen interest in present day badminton. He had such precision and understanding of angles, he was an athlete because he could adapt to tennis and badminton," Gopichand said.
"He had such beautiful hands, skills and also his movement."
Former India coach Vimal Kumar said his father was a big fan of Natekar and that's how he got into the sport.
"My father was a big fan of him and in fact it was after he saw him during a national event at (then) Trivandrum that he put up an outside court at our house and that's how I got initiated into badminton," he said.
"I could only see him play when he won the veteran All England in the 1980s. He was as popular as the cricketers in the 50s and people used to line up to watch him play."
Abdul Shaikh, who played with Natekar in the Maharashtra team before shifting to Canada in 1967, also had a lot of good memories.
"I am very sorry to hear this news. He was one of the most stylish and graceful international players I have seen in my life," Shaikh, who went on to coach the Canada badminton team, told PTI from Vancouver.
"I had partnered him in India Open in the 1960s. We had lost to Malaysia in the finals. He was someone who actually picked up his superb backhand from Wong Peng Soon of Malaysia. He was such a superb stroke player and had beautiful footwork."
Natekar was also a good singer, according to Shaikh.
"We used to travel in trains for international and inter-state events and he used to be a good singer. We used to play antakshri," he laughed, remembering the old days.
Former India shuttler and doubles specialist Uday Pawar also reacted with sadness at the news.
"It is a sad day. He was reputed to have the best back-hand in the world and it is sad we could not have any of his video films to watch, to know really how great he was," Pawar said.
"He was the best player Maharashtra has produced in badminton."
Dipankar Bhattacharajee, who represented India in 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympics, described him as a "Godfather of Indian badminton".
"...I think even Prakash Sir used to draw inspiration from Nandu Natekar Sir. So, I mean, what you can say, he is the Godfather of Indian badminton," he said.
"I didn't see him play but the greatest moment of my life came when in one of the national ranking tournaments in Pune, Natekar Sir was the chief guest and he gave me the first prize, so that is one memorable moment for me."
Badminton Association of India (BAI) president Himanta Biswa Sarma also offered condolences.
"One of the towering icons of Indian badminton, Nandu Natekar leaves behind a rich legacy, that we shall cherish forever. 6-time national champion & first Indian to win an international title in 1956, Natekar shall be remembered fondly for his drives, drops & smashes. Condolences," Sarma said.