The difference that one man with vision can make is apparent from the rise of Indian badminton. Coach Pullela Gopichand has crafted a host of players into world beaters and more crucially, he has changed a country’s outlook towards a sport where the great wall of China has for long looked insurmountable.
Those early morning sessions in the wee hours that he is famous for have not only sculpted the skills of players like PV Sindhu and K Srikanth but have also made for tougher minds. On account of this man, Indians no longer believe that the Chinese are unbeatable.
On Tuesday, Sindhu walked off the court after beating the world No 2. On Wednesday, Srikanth came close to bettering the world No 3 but faltered in the closing stages. Both of Gopichand’s wards showed that when it comes to world badminton, India is now no flake in the maelstrom that is the Chinese challenge.
Sindhu’s 55-minute encounter showcased a young woman coming to terms with her ability. The 22-20, 21-19 verdict reflected a player not overawed by the setting, not given to the frailty of nerves.
This Olympic quarterfinal was a gritty contest between youth and experience. The 21-year-old trailed for the majority of the first game and only got her nose ahead at 14-14 just to see her one-point lead slip away as the 28-year-old Wang Yihan rushed back to take a two-point lead. The points yo-yoed back and forth till the Indian had two game points at 20-18. When the Chinese clawed back to 20-20, it was easy to presume that the pressure will get to the Indian. But Sindhu showed the kind of grit that defines champions to claw back another game point and close out at 22-20.
In the second game, she led from the start and the Chinese never got ahead till Sindhu seemed to be having trouble closing out the game despite being ahead 18-13. The world number two then showed what made her earn that ranking as she took six points on the trot to make it 18-19. If Sindhu had to let go, that was when the possibility reared rampant.
But the Indian seems to have ice running through her veins as she stayed cool enough to get right back into the game and reel off three points on the trot to earn her semifinals berth. She takes on Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in the semis and the world number six has a 3-1 record against the Indian. The last time they played, in February this year, Okuhara had prevailed. However, on the biggest sporting stage of them all, Sindhu has already shown that she has the grit to go for gold.
Even as Sindhu raised her game at that intangible moment in a match where momentum hangs in the balance, ready to tip in favour of the brave, Srikanth was unable to.
Pitted against five-time world and two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan, Srikanth needed to pull off a miracle to prevail. He almost did, but not quite. Sport is merciless in that it doesn’t reward just good effort; it also demands steely nerves to raise that bar when it really counts.
The 21-6, 11-21, 21-18 verdict shows just how deep Srikanth dug to pull himself out of the rut of an indifferent first game. But when he really needed to shut the gate, a couple of errors allowed the wily Lin Dan to escape. The 68-minute encounter did illustrate that Indian badminton has now moved on from being a one name phenomenon in the minds of the lay sports follower.
With Saina Nehwal, now India will follow and cherish the exploits of Sindhu and Srikanth too. All three have one common thread that’s weaved their dreams to world-beating potency: The sweat and astute mind of a man called Gopichand.