60 Minutes: With Pullela Gopichand Other Sports

It’s been a dream journey so far, says P. Gopichand

Tough call: 'I am slogging it out more as a coach than I did as a player.’Photo: K. Murali Kumar   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Pullela Gopichand’s day begins at 4 a.m. with a tough training schedule at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. It continues late into the evening with a couple of hours’ break in between. But the 43-year-old five-time national champion, winner of the 2001 All England Open Badminton Championships, and coach is upbeat and sporting a smile when I meet him, even though he has returned from Goa only at 1 a.m. after delivering a talk.

Gopi has redefined the yardsticks of excellence in badminton, and has been largely responsible for India breaching the metaphorical wall—something that was almost unthinkable, say, a decade ago. Given his stunning track record in producing medallists in two consecutive Olympics (Saina Nehwal at the 2012 London Olympics and P.V. Sindhu at the 2016 Rio Olympics) Gopi faces the daunting task now of meeting expectations. His gruelling training schedule is non-negotiable, and his fitness level can upstage players much younger. But he goes about the task with ease and dignity, and this separates Gopi from the rest of the crowd.

As cricketer and schoolmate V.V.S. Laxman said, “He sets new benchmarks as a coach that are difficult for others to follow.”

Fantastic feeling

As we settle down, Gopi says, “It has been a dream journey so far for me. Primarily, this is thanks to my father’s transfer from Ongole to Hyderabad, quite by chance. I remember we used to stay in a rented apartment in the Hyderguda bylane. I never thought I would play badminton at that time.”

“Badminton is now a big sport, it was certainly not when I started playing. Remember, Hyderabad didn’t even have a national champion. So, to dream of being a national champion itself was a big thing those days,” he recalls.

Luckily, things went well for Gopi and his interest in the sport sustained. “Yes, I have had my share of injuries, and badminton lacked basic facilities too. It was a tough call to carry on with the sport. But since I developed a fascination for it, I just could not think of moving away.”

He talks about the support he got from his coaches—S.M. Arif, Prakash Padukone, Ganguly Prasad (who was with him when he won the All England title in 2001) and others. “But for them, I would not be sitting here right now.”

Gopi looks visibly content with his journey in so far. “When I look back now, the biggest achievement for me as a player was winning the All England Open Badminton Championships. It was a dream come true. Never did I imagine I would win in an event of that magnitude coming from a place like Hyderabad.” Importantly for Gopi, that victory also spurred him to think about starting an academy once his playing days were over. “I always struggled for courts and shuttles. So, I felt that the players of the next generation should have these facilities in place.

Former chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and enterpreneur Nimmagadda Prasad were two of the earliest people to come forward to help him set up the academy.

“I went through a lot of turmoil while setting up the first place in Gachibowli. There were many people who helped me and also some who tried to bring things down,” he says.

Why an academy, I ask. “The first, or rather the biggest, objective was to produce an Olympic medallist. Glad it did not take too long to see two of them—Saina and Sindhu—in two consecutive Olympics. It was a fantastic feeling to see them bring back laurels at that level,” says the visibly proud coach.

Has life really changed for him now as a coach? “Not really. The kind of schedule I have is tough physically and mentally. Yes, I do agree that in a way I am slogging it out more as a coach than I did as a player,” he says with a big smile, “but I am loving it!” For Gopi, staying away from the game is a harder job.

Badminton family

At any given point, someone from Gopi’s family is always present at the academy to ensure that the players are comfortable.

“I must say I am fortunate to have someone like Lakshmi (P.V.V. Lakshmi, two-time national women’s singles champion) as my life partner. But for her, there is no way I could have spent so much time coaching, travelling and attending all the meetings. She understands the demands and makes things comfortable for me.”

His parents have been fantastic too. Clearly, it’s a well-knit badminton family. But Gopi admits that there have been times when “I thought I should sleep more, rest and spend time with my family, especially with my kids.”

Gopi’s children, Gayathri and Sai Vishnu, play badminton and his daughter has already won a couple of under-17 national titles. “Yes, my kids playing badminton is a huge plus. If they were keen on some other sport, perhaps as parents we would have been under a different kind of pressure in terms of travel, attention, education. We are lucky to see them every day and evaluate what exactly they are doing,” he says. And is it hard to double up as coach and parent? “They are like any other trainees. There is no way they are pampered. Remember, in sports you don’t always keep winning. They have to learn it the hard way and I am glad they are enjoying the sport right now,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine how Gopi’s life would have turned out had he not turned coach. “Well, like many players who faded after quitting the sport, I might have too. I might have probably been on some committee or the other, or been working as a critic or a commentator,” he muses.

Gopi’s formidable bouquet of awards—Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Arjuna Award, Dronacharya Award—add to his invincible aura. And he is practical about their importance. “Some people don’t even recognise the All England title triumph while some recognise you because you are a Padma Bhushan. The awards are equally important in terms of recognition from different strata of society,” he says.

The best of the achievers have regrets and Gopi’s is to have missed going to university. “I always dreamt of doing research in sports. But, somehow because of the sport’s demanding schedules, I couldn’t realise that dream,” he says, faintly wistful. But life compensated amply.

Magic moments

In a career spanning close to 25 years, including as coach, the defining moments can be many. But Gopi picks three. “Winning the Junior national badminton championship in 1991 in Goa. “If I had not won that, I would not have continued playing. It gave me a job in Tata Steel, but I had to quit it as they refused to grant me leave to train and compete in tournaments. Then I joined Air India before finally landing with Indian Oil.”

Gopi’s second ‘moment’ is his career-threatening knee injury in 1994. “It was a real tough time, but it made me mature early in life, taught me how much I loved the sport. During that phase I never thought of anything other than getting back on court. There was never a thought that it was all over,” Gopi recalls.

Finally, the 2001 All England championship title stands out, for obvious reasons. “Life definitely changed after that great win. It was only the second time an Indian had won it after Prakash Sir,” he says.

It’s never easy to handle champions like Saina or Sindhu, especially after their evolution from raw talent, but Gopi has been lucky with his students. “Fortunately, the cultural perspective prevalent in India ensures there is still some respect for the teachers.”

For someone who has put in place a system that has produced champions like Saina, Sindhu, Srikanth and Praneeth, does the future of coaching and the sport worry him? “I believe that individuals are not bigger than the system. That is why we should ensure a system is in place. Individuals may come and go. The process should not end abruptly. When I started off as a coach, nobody thought about the kind of success we would see. Now, I want to do much more and expect others to show commitment and passion.”

Neither playing nor coaching can be a 9 to 5 job, and Gopi has proved it. “I am determined to keep going,” he says, before joining his players for another intensive training session.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 11:23:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/its-been-a-dream-journey-so-far/article19377246.ece

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