Pullela Gopichand has never been intimidated by challenges! He has never been dissuaded by setbacks, and has always tried to soar over obstacles in his quest for success. He has done that as a badminton player, he is doing that as a coach now.
Not many thought he would be able to play badminton again when Gopichand suffered a career-threatening injury at a tournament in 1994. He faced a tricky decision: Should he continue to pursue a career in badminton when even the surgeon who was to operate on him was not confident that he would able to take the court again?
Such a decision would also prove a further financial burden on his parents, who had already sacrificed a lot for him to chase badminton glory. With questions and doubts swirling around, Gopichand decided to go with his gut feeling. He was sure of his abilities, his capacity for hard work and was confident of making it big.
Gopichand underwent four surgeries in three years on his left knee, before stepping back onto the badminton courts and going on to win the All-England crown — the Wimbledon of badminton — in 2001. He and Prakash Padukone are the only Indians to win the prestigious tournament, the oldest badminton tournament in the World.
Gopi, as he is fondly known as, faced a similar Hamletian dilemma a decade back after he had hung his racquets and decided to build his academy in Hyderabad. With not much support from the federation and the Andhra Pradesh government providing land on a nominal lease, Gopi was scrambling for funds necessary to start a world-class facility.
Many of his well-wishers had again dissuaded him: ‘Running a world-class academy in India without government and federation support is next to impossible. So don’t do it’, they advised.
His own man
Gopi went with his gut feeling again. Raised funds with the help of family, friends and relatives and even mortgaged his house to make up for the deficit of a few lakh, putting not only his life’s earnings but his wife Laxmi and parents’ money on the line.
His dream project, the Pullela Gopichand Academy, came into existence in Hyderabad in 2008 and has since become the mecca of Indian badminton, producing stars like Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, P Kashyap, Gurusai Dutt and HS Prannoy.
And of course PV Sindhu, who this week went further at the Olympics than any Indian woman sportsperson has ever done — reaching the women’s singles final in Rio. Saina Nehwal had put Indian badminton on the Olympic pedestal four years ago by winning a bronze medal in London.
Sindhu, on Thursday, made history when she defeated reigning All England champion Nazomi Okuhara of Japan reach the Olympics final.
Gopichand was there on the side of the court when Sindhu set the bar higher for the coming generation of badminton players in India. And nobody would be happier for her than Gopichand who helped turn a shy, reticent and soft person like Sindhu into an aggressive player not afraid of taking on the best in the world.
As his wards corner glory, Gopi is continuing ahead with his plans for his academy despite financial constraints.
A man of principle
Money has been a hurdle for Gopi’s plans but that has not been the motivation for him, it has never been be-all-and-end all of his life. Gopichand has stood by his plans and principles even at the cost of mega bucks.
He once rejected a lucrative endorsement deal offered by a soft-drink brand soon after winning the All-England because he thinks aerated drinks are not good for health. ‘I would not endorse something that I don’t believe in myself,’ was his principled stand, which cost him a substantial sum.
Similarly, Gopi has remained steadfast in his belief that Indian shuttlers can be world beaters and has gone about producing and grooming champions even when many of his peers faced setbacks and discontinued.
In his journey thus far, Gopi has also faced a lot of controversies, he has been pilloried by doubles champion Jwala Gutta, who believes that he does not give as much attention to doubles, and has been dragged to the court by Maharashtra’s Prajakta Sawant, alleging mental harassment.
Gopi has also faced adverse reaction for insisting — as chief national coach he has power to do so — on holding lengthy camps to build up the players’ strengths and skills instead of throwing them at the deep end in tournaments.
Many players, including Gutta, have resisted this strategy, but Gopi has gone ahead with his gut feelings on coaching too — insisting on implementing his own coaching style, the things he developed when he left Prakash Padukone’s academy in Bengaluru at the turn of the century to implement his own training ideas in association with Sports Authority of India coach, Ganguly Prasad.
He recently faced a similar situation when Saina left his academy to join Vimal Kumar at the Padukone Academy in Bangalore.
However, despite these hurdles, Gopi has gone ahead implementing his plans for Indian badminton, hoping to see more and more Indian players’ turn world beaters. Though the dream of winning gold medal was not fulfilled in Rio, with Sindhu winning the silver medal four years after Saina bagged bronze, Gopi seems on course to achieving it in Tokyo.
Indian badminton has been powered by the achievements of three stalwarts — Dinesh Khanna lit the flame in the ’60s and Padukone set the bar higher, challenging the hegemony of China, Indonesia and Denmark. But Gopichand has put it at a higher pedestal, both as a player and as coach.
If Saina, Sindhu and Srikanth are the face of Indian badminton, Gopichand is the brain behind their success, plotting moves with the guile and precision of a chess Grandmaster.
Soon after he returns from Rio de Janeiro, the master tactician will be back on the courts of his academy, plotting the next course for Indian badminton. The dream lives on!