The city of Nizams was busy counting sheep. But chief national coach Pullela Gopichand was already in his lair.
On the other side of a large glass pane separating a hall that houses eight badminton courts with an office, a lean, muscular man in black shorts and a colourful jacket stood on a wooden box unleashing quick-fire missiles of shuttle-cocks across the net.
Holding ten shuttles in one hand and throwing them down furiously at three students, Gopichand, the last Indian player to win the coveted All England Club Title in 2001, was busy ensuring his trainees covered every inch of the court.
Gopichand’s fondness of starting practice early is known. For years, it was in the 4.30 am shift that Olympic finalist PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and Parupalli Kashyap trained before the then celebrated players, stars such as Saina Nehwal, arrived for the 6 am shift. “He is on courts before everybody at 4.15 am. And he stays till the last student has returned in the evening. Gopi Sir showers the same attention on each of the 50 trainees at the academy,” Kashyap told this correspondent when he visited the academy.
Sindhu and Srikanth, who beat Jan Jorgensen of Denmark in the round of 16, are just two of his illustrious wards on a conveyor belt of champions that Gopichand’s Academy in Hyderabad’s bustling Gachibawli neighbourhood, has produced.
Before Sindhu, of course, Gopichand’s most famous protégé was Saina Nehwal, till they famously parted ways after the London 2012 Olympics.
Gopichand first thought of setting up an academy with facilities to match the best in the world, in 2001, sitting in a taxi after landing in New Delhi following his famous All-England victory. Of course, the story about how Nehwal’s Haryanvi parents shifted to Hyderabad to ensure that their daughter got to train with him is part of Indian sporting lore.
For Sindhu, the most celebrated Indian athlete at the Rio Olympics, getting on the road to success meant passing through Hyderabad’s numerous flyovers, literally. “I used to travel 30 kilometres to come and play here. Dropping me to morning practice and then to school and then again for evening practice was my father’s routine for more than four years before we shifted from Secunderabad,” the tall, rangy champion told this reporter, as she wiped her brow after a gruelling morning workout.
It is Gopichand’s reputation of producing future champions that made KVS Krishna, a farmer in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district and his homemaker wife Radha send their sons to Hyderabad to train with Gopichand. Of the two, they didn’t expect Srikanth their younger, headstrong son, to outshine his brother Nanda Gopal and become the top ranked Indian men’s badminton player in the world. “Growing up in Guntur, we had no interest in sports till we watched Gopi Sir win the All England title on television. His victory inspired my brother and me to start playing badminton,” said Srikanth.
Srikanth’s story is the stuff sporting dreams are made of. Not so long ago, the then 22-year-old reticent champion dropped unconscious in the academy washroom following a meningitis attack. “I was in the ICU for a week. I didn’t train for a few days after that. It is to my coach’s credit that he displayed confidence to pick me for tournaments such as the Asian Games. I then won the China Open in November 2014 on the day it was Gopi Sir’s birthday. After the final, I called him up to say was my birthday present to him,” said Srikanth.
Gopi Sir’s students were the first to slay the demons in Indian players’ minds about the Chinese being invincible. But there there’s a method behind Gopichand’s success. Students don’t venture out in the evenings since they have to be up by 4 am for the first shift of practice.
They have no Internet access and are allowed mobile phone calls only on Sundays. Common 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 have to be at 100 per cent all the time. That needs committed practice,” explains Gopichand. “Discipline and regimentation are important for sport or excellence. Unfortunately, there cannot be easy-going methods You need to train hard, be tough on yourself and you need to do it day in and day out.”
And the seasoned coach lives this credo. Surely, he doesn’t need to be up at 4.15 every morning. He has won the biggest badminton title of them all and numerous coaching accolades including the Dronacharya Award. What drives him at 42? “I don’t really know. I just feel I should push as much as I can every single day. For India to have its national anthem played at a global badminton event is a big thing. I think there cannot be a bigger motivation than that. But each time I feel low, I think of things like these and where Indian badminton was years ago and where it is today and I feel motivated,” he said.
As a child, Gopichand was never under too much pressure to excel at academics, he recalls. His mother allowed him to pursue competitive sport. Still, like most boys growing up in South India in the early 90s, he too, had to take an engineering exam like his elder brother who made it to IIT Chennai and finally settled in the West. “Yes, I took the exam and flunked. Otherwise my life would have taken another turn,” says the six-time national champion, who was fond of watching Rajinikanth movies when he was young and even sported a moustache like the screen-idol for some time.
One of his greatest success stories was bouncing back from a severe knee injury that he sustained during a doubles match in 1994. Following a surgery conducted by Dr Ashok Rajgopal, Gopi could not walk properly for close to a year, he found sustenance in Yoga and Art of Living. “I could win the All England at a late stage at 27. My time was done, but I wanted to do something for the younger players. And the academy provided me that opportunity.”
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