Badzine Correspondent Dev S. Sukumar met with Morten Frost few weeks ago when the Danish Legend came by Bangalore. Here is the story.
The iron mask
There was a time when Morten Frost-Hansen was the best badminton player in the world.
That was when he was known as ‘Mr Badminton’, when he dominated the world stage, winning tournament after tournament after tournament. That period – the eighties – saw him win four All England titles out of eight final appearances, and nearly every title in Europe and Asia. In a manner demonstrated only by the rarest of the rare, such as a Lance Armstrong or a Bjorn Borg, Morten defied the ‘glorious uncertainty’ of sport, running undefeated for months at a stretch.
That was also when he convinced others that he was a machine. A machine that would never hurt, never tire, never falter. And to do that meant never, ever relinquishing control – on and off the court.
There’s a story of how he once went holidaying in Spain with his contemporary, the English international Steve Baddeley. They did the touristy things, swimming and surfing and playing around. Sometimes they would stay up late, too many beers, but the next day, on court, Morten would never give Baddeley an inch. There was no way he was going to lose even if he was sick and his head felt like it was going to explode. And many years later, ten years or so, Baddeley told him: “That was the worst holiday of my life – I hated every minute of it. There was no human being in you. You just wanted to win every time we got on court.”
Ahhh… memories, memories. And Morten Frost was in Bangalore, more than two decades after all that. He was wide-eyed at all the attention he was getting, people thronging the KBA stadium for his match against old rival and friend Prakash Padukone, and he was marvelling at the wonderment of it all. Such love and warmth. And that was making him think of all the things beyond winning, the simple pleasure of playing for the sake of playing, and not just to win. But then… he’s so popular because he kept winning, isn’t he?
There were always two Mortens — the Public Morten and the Private Morten. Public Morten was what everybody saw – the mask, the man who would not hurt. To preserve the mask he had to become this relentless human machine, pushing himself on and on and on, in season and out of season, during training and during matches, through the tournament days and through the holidays. There was no real holiday during the decade-and-half when he was the world’s best. He would take his running shoes wherever he went. He would push himself every time beyond his own limits… when he ran with his trainer, at the point of exhaustion he would imagine a tree in the distance, and tell himself he would stop when he came to that tree. And when he reached that spot he would imagine another tree further away, and run to that.
And when he played, he carried the same image: never letting an opponent beat him even in practice, never even giving them the hint that he was human and beatable. If only they knew how he felt. They always thought he was playing at half-pace because they saw nothing on his face, and that killed them because they could feel their own hearts popping out. But they saw only the mask; Morten never showed his own hurt.
But there were times when the Public Morten was jolted out of that routine, and the Private Morten would surface – the guy who longed to be free of all the pressure and not have to look over his shoulder each time.
The first was when he was coming up fast on the international scene. He was beating some of the world’s best players even as a 19-year-old, and getting invited to tournaments all over. His parents would ask him to come over for the weekend, but he was too busy. Even when he was in Copenhagen – his home was an hour and a half from the Danish capital – he felt he had no time to even pop in for dinner. After all, he was the brightest prospect on the international horizon.
And then his mother died.
The second was when Prakash Padukone – his closest friend on the international circuit – invited him to Bangalore in 1980 for some exhibition matches to raise money for a badminton hall. That was the best trip Morten had ever been on. Prakash and his friends and family treated Morten to a grand time; they went sight-seeing, they played basketball, and they went to Bannerghatta national park, when they made him sit on an elephant and he turned red because he’d never even seen an elephant before.
And so, twenty-six years after that trip, Morten was invited again to Bangalore, this time by the Karnataka Badminton Association, for a three-day coaches’ clinic and an exhibition match between him and Padukone. The event was ‘house-full’ — unprecedented by contemporary Indian badminton standards. And then he was taken to Prakash Courts that he had helped fund, and he was moved to see that his visit in 1980 had resulted in something that had lasted a quarter of a century.
So, when he’s asked if he had to pay a price – the price of human relationship — for the ‘tough-guy’ routine, and if he felt he could have enjoyed his playing days better, he confides: “It’s funny you say that. I never thought I would come to a situation where I had to admit it, but yes, I think so. But when at the time it happened, it was not intentional. It was just… a way of life, a way of seeing things, doing things. But as you grow older, as your horizon opens up, you think – how could I say that, do that? And you know…. even being here is an enormous eye-opener. Because Prakash and I had this rivalry, and today you can see how much we’re alike, and how much fun and enjoyment we could’ve had out of a more social relationship. That we never had, because we had a rivalry on court as well.”
When his mother died it was like… “you think of all the things you wanted to say and wanted to do… and everything you took for granted, and it’s a complete eye-opener for you. But you don’t see it at the time. And then it hits you, and you start reflecting on it. And… I think there are two sayings I’m in favour of. One is what a Danish philosopher said: ‘You live life forwards and you understand it backwards’. That’s how I feel standing here today, that I understand what we had at the time, but we never really appreciated before it was gone.
“And the other saying is: ‘Youth is just wasted on the youth.’”
Morten laughs. He understands the irony, but like every top-level competitor, he had to make a compromise. Perhaps it’s impossible to be a winner over a decade without having to put your art and craft above your relationships. That’s perhaps why a Lance Armstrong or a Bjorn Borg appears to be ‘cold’.
But Morten is now comfortable with both his selves. His public self appears when he talks to the coaches and players – while he’s exhorting them to never, ever give up, when he’s asking them to cultivate an image that can never be dented. But then the private, more introspective self too appears at times, and he tells the players he understands how they must feel, and how it’s lonely out there on the circuit for a badminton player, and that they can trust him… because there are times when you want to vomit it all out because you are so lonely.
After years of living behind a mask, the real Morten Frost-Hansen is showing up.