Pullela Gopichand has grown out of being just a badminton guru. Today, among other things, his opinion is sought on how to improve India’s medal prospects in the Olympics. On a whistle-stop visit to Kolkata after nearly eight years, the man behind the badminton revolution spoke to HT. Excerpts
Q: Given that India has five men’s players in the top 50 and two women in the top 10, would it be fair to say it is an emerging power?
A: The performance of the last few years would substantiate that but a lot of work still needs to be done.
Q: What is needed for men to make the kind of jump Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have made?
A: You had (Kidambi) Srikanth as world No. 3 and (Parupalli) Kashyap as world No. 6. Now, Ajay Jayaram, Sai (Praneeth), (H.S.) Prannoy too have been ranked in the top 20. But to find someone who will be a world No. 1, I think we will need a little more time.
Q: In the not so distant past, the thought of an Indian No.1 in men’s badminton would seem like a pipedream..
A: Not anymore. As a sport, we have progressed well; that there is bench strength signifies something is being done right. To make the next level, we will need a little more strength physically, little more strength mentally.
Q: As part of the government’s task force, what needs to be done for 2020 Games in general and badminton in particular?
A: I think the government keenly tried to put things in place before Rio. We need to learn from our mistakes from 2016 and give support as quickly as possible.
That’s because next year is the Commonwealth year and 2019 is the Olympic qualifiers. If you intend to win a medal in badminton, you should be good enough to qualify at the beginning of 2019 and not be one of the last ones because then your entire effort is on qualification and not on the Olympics.
Q: Injuries derailed your career…
A: I think my career got made by injury. I believe injuries have made me stronger. Back then nobody thought of winning anything big in badminton. I became a different player, mentally stronger. I had surgeries when I was 20, 22 and 24 and when I got back my craving for the sport increased.
Q: Do you think Saina Nehwal’s comeback after injury is on course?
A: I think she has done well, her progress has been good and am sure she will make the next step as well. When your physical strength and ability comes back, your mental strength and confidence too will return.
Q: Your thoughts on the Sindhu-Saina rivalry?
A: As long as it helps their performance get better, I am happy.
Q: The new BAI president, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has spoken of state of the art academies across India. Is that doable?
A: As a nation we are big and varied so we should have multiple academies so that people don’t have to travel. For the sport to get the next level, broadbasing is important. It is time consuming, infrastructure and funding intensive. But sport needs to grow in a sequence... People first, projects and programs next and then infrastructure. Think it is important to identify the people. It is tough to find people with the right kind of drive. You may not need to invest in infrastructure initially.
If you look at my journey as a coach, we had very little infrastructure when we started. We were running out of government set-up almost for five years …. Over time, we got a swimming pool and running track and added a recovery centre... We are people first, programme and then infrastructure.
New Delhi has a few state-of-the-art venues, every city that has hosted a National Games has built infrastructure. There are multiple stadiums built over the years but haven’t produced players. Good coaches, bad infrastructure can produce players. The reverse is never true.
Q: You have been a strong advocate of amalgamating coaching systems but again given India’s diversity and size, can we have one system?
A: We haven’t yet done it but doesn’t mean we can’t. It is challenging but we have seen things transform in our country, from telecommunications to electrification, Swachh Bharat. We need strong leaders to drive it and a deep understanding of the system.
Q: As someone this soft spoken, is there a contradiction in how you tried to get PV Sindhu show aggression on court?
A: People who have seen me in my younger days know my aggression. You need do what is needed. Sometimes you have fake it till you make it. I think aggression is needed and to show aggression is also needed. Every person needs to do what is required and not what is habit.
Q: Getting up at 4:30am to spare an extra hour for Sindhu from 2010. Do you have time to train your daughter Gayatri?
A: No, the system takes care of that. But the good thing is Gayatri enjoys the sport. (She recently won the under-15 title at the 2017 International Junior Grand Prix). Eight of the five quarter-finalists there were my girls. Am sure some of them will go on become champions.