Last forthnight, when Saina Nehwal lost in the final of the All England Badminton Championship to Spain’s Carolina Marin after winning the first game, a former champion from India was missing from the coach’s corner.
Ironically, Pullela Gopichand, 41, was the last Indian to wear the coveted All England crown. Who knows, maybe Saina would have benefited from former coach Gopichand’s advice in the tournament had she continued to train with him?
In 2001, caught in a traffic jam in Delhi after returning from the United Kingdom following the famous victory, Gopichand first thought about setting up an academy equipped with training facilities that matched the best in the world. Of course, the story about how Nehwal’s Haryanvi parents shifted from Hisar to badminton hub Hyderabad, where she eventually trained with Gopichand for 10 years, is well-known.
In 2010, Saina won India’s only Olympic medal in badminton. Last year, she moved on to Bangalore, found another coach and left the academy where she scored her most famous victories. But her alma mater at Hyderabad’s bustling Gachibawli neighbourhood is still churning out other champions who are making India proud on the global stage.
Among the new crop of trainees busy perfecting their smashes, drops, blocks and forehands at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy are men’s world number four Kidambi Srikanth, who won the Swiss Open on March 15, women’s world number nine Pusarla Venkata Sindhu and Commonwealth Games champion Parupalli Kashyap.
Like Nehwal, many of these students have moved home either to stay closer to the academy (the way Sindhu did), or shifted to the residential academy altogether (as is the case with Srikanth).
Macau Open 2014 winner, PV Sindhu, 19, the first Indian woman to win a singles medal at the World Championships, is drawing comparisons with Saina Nehwal.
Net profits: PV Sindhu is considered the next big thing after Saina Nehwal.
For Sindhu, getting on the road to fame meant passing through Hyderabad’s numerous flyovers, literally. "I used to travel 27 kilometres to come and play at the academy. Dropping me to morning practice and then to school and getting me back for evening practice was my father’s routine for more than four years before we shifted closer to the academy," says the tall, gangly girl sitting on her haunches, as she wipes her brow with a towel after a gruelling daybreak workout.
Gopichand’s reputation of turning badminton rookies into champions also convinced KVS Krishna, a farmer in rural Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district and his homemaker wife Radha to send their teenage sons to Hyderabad to train with him.
Today Srikanth, their headstrong son, has outshone his elder brother Nanda Gopal to become the top-ranked Indian men’s badminton player in the world. In 2014, at the China Open, Srikanth earned a reputation as a giant-killer after vanquishing five-times World Champion Lin Dan.
Creating a racquet: World No. 4 Kidambi Srikanth, 22, once fainted on the academy premises after a meningitis attack.
“Growing up in Guntur, my brother and I had no interest in sports till we watched Gopi sir win the All England title on TV,” says Srikanth, who beat Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen to lift the Swiss Open title at Basel this month.
Today, Srikanth is the toast of the badminton world. But a few months back, the reticent 22-year-old gave his admirers anxious moments when he dropped unconscious in the academy washroom following a meningitis attack. Today, Srikanth seems to have put that dark phase behind him.
“I was put in the ICU and hospitalised for a week. Still, Gopi sir displayed confidence in me to pick me for tournaments after I recovered. Steps like these helped restore my confidence.
And beating badminton legend Lin Dan at the China Open was a dream come true. November 16, the day I beat Dan, was Gopi sir’s birthday. After the final, I called him and said it was my birthday present for him.”
His trainees can’t stop raving about how ‘Gopi sir’ motivates them. Gopi’s mother Subbaravamma says that every day, the academy turns down close to 25 requests from zealous parents who approach them with one request: turn their child into the next Saina.
What’s it that makes him Indian badminton’s Coach No. 1? A pre-dawn visit to the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy might provide an answer.
On the shop floor
A biopic based on Gopichand’s life starring Telugu actor Sudheer Babu has recently been announced. But his celeb status rests lightly on the shoulders of the six-feet-two-inches tall gentle giant.
The city of Nizams is busy counting sheep. But the chief national coach is already in his lair. As we wait for the interview in the office, on the other side of a huge glass pane that overlooks the courts, we notice a lean, muscular man standing on a wooden box unleashing quick-fire missiles of shuttlecocks across the net.
Holding 10 shuttles in one hand and throwing them down with increasing speed, Gopichand is making sure that every corner of the court is covered by the three girl trainees.
At 4.30am, sleep is the farthest from the minds of the students as they scramble to return Gopichand’s fusillade of volleys. For years, it is in this very 4.30 session that Sindhu, Kashyap and Srikanth toiled before the other senior players such as Saina arrived for the second shift at 6am. “Sir is on the courts much before everybody at 4.15am,” says Kashyap.
Gopichand’s strenuous work ethic extends to the disciplined lifestyle that his students lead. They don’t venture out in the evening since they have to be up at 4 for practice. They are kept away from the distractions of social media since the Internet is out of bounds. And they are allowed television only during meal breaks at the academy cafeteria.
Many areas of the academy – apart from the 16 rooms and three dormitories – are under CCTV surveillance. “With the levels that we are playing at, you need to ensure that you cannot be even 99 per cent good. You have to be at 100 per cent all the time. That needs committed practice,” reasons Gopichand. “Discipline is important for excellence. Unfortunately, there cannot be any easy-going methods in sport. You need to be tough on yourself day in and day out.”
And the seasoned coach, too, lives this credo. He has won the All England, the biggest badminton title of them all and numerous coaching accolades including the Dronacharya Award in 2009. Surely, he doesn’t need to be at the courts at 4.15 every morning. What drives him at the age of 41?
“I don’t really know. I am grateful to the country for giving me more than I deserve. I feel I should push as much as I can every single day. For India to have its national anthem played twice in China at a badminton event and the tricolour being hoisted two times because of my students [at the China Super Series in 2014] is superb.
There can’t be a bigger driving force than that. Each time I feel low, I think of memories like these and I feel motivated. It raises my motivation levels like nothing else does,” he says, as I get goosebumps listening to the patriot that is Pullela Gopichand. The coach, on the other hand, known not to let emotions get the better of him, is a picture of calm.
For a coach whose students have made it a habit to beat the once-invincible Chinese, Gopichand is more Zen master than military strategist Sun Tzu, author of
The Art of War
. Ask World No. 13 Kashyap.
When the Hyderabadi did a Sourav Ganguly and took his shirt off after striking gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he wasn’t sure how his coach would react.
“Winning the Commonwealth gold for India after a gap of 32 years was a big deal for me! But I would never expect Gopi sir to do the same. Even after he won the All England title in 2001, something he had been dreaming of since childhood, he was so calm that he celebrated by just raising his arms over his head.”
As a child, Gopichand was never under pressure to do well at studies, he recalls. His mother encouraged him to pursue sport, he says. Still, not unlike boys growing up in South India in the ’90s, Gopi too, had to take an engineering exam.
“Yes, I took the IIT exam and fortunately, flunked,” says the six-time national champion, who was fond of watching Rajinikanth movies in his teens and even sported a moustache like the screen-idol at one time.
One of the toughest phases in Gopichand’s life was bouncing back from a severe knee injury he sustained in 1994. Following a knee surgery conducted by Dr Ashok Rajgopal, Gopi couldn’t walk properly for close to a year and found sustenance in yoga.
“In my career, I learnt a lot of things by trial and error. I battled with training routines, food, mental strategies and injury. Unfortunately, what that led to was that I could win the All England only at the late age of 27. Had I won it earlier and reached my peak earlier, I could have achieved more than I did during that time for India. I’ve always felt that if a player realises his potential at an early age, there is time for him or her to get over the problems, make the mistakes and learn from them.
If you are 28-29, you are almost at the fag-end of your career. My time was done, but I wanted to do something for the younger players. And the academy gave me that opportunity,” says the second Indian after Prakash Padukone (in 1980), to win the All England title.
As a coach, Pullela Gopichand’s most celebrated protégé, of course is Saina Nehwal. Last year, before the Incheon Asian Games, Saina, the only Indian Olympics winner in badminton, snapped her decade-long association with Gopichand and moved to the Padukone Academy.
Media reports said Saina was unhappy about Gopichand not devoting enough time to her. Since then, under former national champion Vimal Kumar, Saina has gone on to beat formidable rivals and inched closer to the world number one ranking.
Gopichand refuses to dwell on the reasons that caused the split. He says he has never spoken about it and wouldn’t like to do it now. But he holds no grudges against Saina.
“She was training with me for 10 years. It [choosing a new coach] is her decision and I respect that. It is great for the country to have a player like her. Saina’s victories were important to propel badminton forward in India. Thanks to her, other players are looking at the Chinese in a new light: that they are beatable.
The beauty about Saina was her self-belief. That belief was important to be the first to beat the Chinese. Today, others are also pushing to beat them, but the first one always has it tougher,” he says. The graceful Zen Master in Gopichand comes to the fore again: beating the odds, fighting adversity but never for once, losing his balance, or the equanimity.
Photos by Raj K Raj
@Aasheesh74 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, March 29
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch