We are waiting for the big day in Olympics and things sure are looking up Pullela Gopichand tells Serish Nanisetti
It is 7 a.m. and Pullela Gopichand has already been on his feet for an hour hopping, shuffling, pep-talking, shooting shuttles at his wards at the badminton academy he created out of scratch in Gachchibowli. As World No 2 player Saina Nehwal jogs around the huge hangar, Gopichand focuses on Pragnya. A few feet away from the net, he stands, the racquet at an angle and telling her how to chop the shuttle inches off the net. Then he fires the shuttle, again, again and again till everything is perfect right down to the footwork.
Off court, the first thing you think about after meeting Pullela Gopichand is to wonder if this man really played competitive badminton. Did he really win the All England Badminton Open in 2001. With an affable grin and boyish charm Gopichand hardly looks like a player of a game where lob, drop, smash and chop are part of the vocabulary.
“The first time I picked up a badminton racquet was in Ongole when I was 10 or 11 years old. The whole neighbourhood was crazy about cricket as it is now but I liked to play badminton. Of course I also played marbles and cricket,” says Gopichand sitting in his office at the Academy from where some of the most talented badminton players are coming. To put things in perspective, this happened around the time India won the Prudential World Cup at the Lord's in London, sweeping a generation off its feet. Born in Nalgonda, picking up the racquet in Ongole spotted for talent in Hyderabad, all these things happened to Gopichand as his banker father moved from place to place and Gopichand studied in St Anthony's, St Paul's as his family never gave up focus on academics.
If he is not juggling calls on the cellphone and fiddling with his laptop he is on his feet inside the badminton court (from his office he can see the courts and the way players are training). He doesn't sit on the side and talk. He gets on the field and shows them.
“We cannot compare cricket or tennis with badminton. The craze for cricket is more as is the recognition, sponsorship and everything else. The visibility of tennis and tennis players is also high. But badminton is also doing very well in comparison to an earlier period. Now we have some world class coaching facilities. And players are also doing very well,” says Gopichand talking like a guru.
A real guru is someone who doesn't want his pupils to undergo the trials and tribulations he has been through. “I was playing at the L.B. Stadium when I was spotted by Hamid Hussain in 1985. He was a nice person and he set me on the path where I was groomed by S.M. Arif and there were tips from Prakash Padukone. And one thing led to another, there was never a plan that I would become a professional badminton player. It was a step by step growth, albeit it was slow beginning with '86 selection for Nationals U-12,” says Gopichand whose career was hampered by a series of injuries.
Now children as young as six and seven troop into the courts at 4.30 a.m. and 5.30 a.m. and warm-up on the wooden floor before picking up the racquet, they can be assured that their careers are in safe hands. The children are assured of seeing and picking up tips from some brilliant players that the academy is producing, “My career growth involved lots of trials and errors. I had to learn from seeing senior players and exposure was very limited,” says Gopichand whose career ended even before it blossomed. Winning the All England Badminton event at age 27 when he could have easily done that at age 22 with a few more years at the top.
“The highpoint of my career will remain the 2001 triumph against Chen Hong in London for the All-England Badminton Championship and the saddest moment was the loss at the Olympics in 2008,” says Gopichand who was awarded the Dronacharya Award last year within a few years of winning the Arjuna Award. His transformation from an ace player to coach was complete.
What if he didn't play badminton? “Oh then I would have been a bad software engineer writing code,” says Gopichand whose ringtone of Paluke Bangaramayena kodhandapaani gives away the musical inclination of his personality. Gopichand is married to former badminton player Lakshmi.