Indian badminton has been a work in progress. At the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Gachibowli, in Hyderabad’s IT corridor, the attempt is to craft India’s tryst with destiny. Pullela Gopichand, the man behind the academy both literally and figuratively, is always the first one to arrive at 4am. Usually, the day begins with his first session, with senior students like PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth.
Over the next three hours, the stillness of the darkness outside is broken only by the squeak of the shoes and Gopi’s deep voice shouting instructions. “Higher, higher, higher!” he would say to Sindhu, to get the bend of her knee just perfect while leaping to execute the smash shot. Or he’d test her reflexes by throwing shuttle after shuttle, as though firing from a machine gun into different corners of the court, challenging her to move her body, her ankle, her knees, her shoulder very swiftly. Watching Gopi with Sindu was like watching a military sergeant at work, focused on getting his sepoy battle-ready.
“I love what I do. I feel fortunate that I get to do, what I do. The players need to see the opportunity that I do and stay physically and mentally hungry,” said Gopichand. It’s telling then that Gopi didn’t ever formally retire from the game.
The soft-spoken 42-year-old eased himself into his second innings – from a student of the game to a teacher. In his 13 years as coach, his gurukul has chiseled aspirants into India’s racquet warriors. Gopi’s factory has attracted talent from all over the country because there is no other academy in India as professionally run; where passion for the sport overrides everything else. Six years ago, there was just one Saina Nehwal. Today it’s the cradle that nurtures the who’s who of Indian badminton.
“Producing champions is not a part-time business. There are some constants that you need to follow to excel at the international level,” said Gopi.
In 2014, when Saina chose to leave Gopichand’s tutelage to train with Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru, conspiracy theories flew thick and fast about what could have led to this break. Saina’s grouse was that with over 150 players at the academy and his responsibility as India’s coach, Gopi was unable to give Nehwal personal attention. If Gopi was hurt, he chose not to articulate it publicly. Today with Sindhu and Srikanth’s entering the Olympics, he can let the racquet do the talking.
The last three months Gopichand was totally off carbohydrates. India’s badminton coach since 2006 has been a fitness freak but this time, he wasn’t doing it for himself. He wanted to stay super fit so that he could be an effective sparring partner to PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth, his two wards who were representing India at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Meticulous to a fault, ‘Gopi’ — as Gopichand is known — started planning for Rio a good year in advance. A weight trainer and physical fitness expert were given the specific task of working on Sindhu. The aim was to build her stamina and strength so that she could last more than an hour on court and engage in long rallies to tire out opponents in tight games.
The matches against Tai Tzu Ying, one of the fittest players on the badminton circuit today, and Wang Yihan showed why that support staff was so critical.
Interestingly, while Gopichand is a Dronacharya award winner, Sindhu has been decorated with the Arjuna award. Together they would hope to win the Mahabharata in Brazilian Kurukshetra.
When Saina Nehwal was his student, Gopi knew what she did at what time, every single hour, every single day. So obsessive was his monitoring that on trips abroad, he would even raid her refrigerator to check if anything on the not-to-be-eaten list was tempting Nehwal.
In the quest for a podium finish, Gopi can go to any extent. With Sindhu too, the line was drawn: Gopi’s word is law. Gopi treats her like a kid, a work in progress who needs his encouragement and guidance 24×7. Sindhu, who has trained with Gopi for the last 12 years, has acknowledged that she has learnt her game entirely from him and follows his word blindly.
Chocolates and Hyderabadi biryani, two of Sindhu’s favourites, were strictly banned for the 21-year-old shuttler. In the run-up to the Olympics, paranoid about anyone trying to dope Sindhu or Srikanth, or either of them catching an infection, Gopi forbade them from drinking water outside. The same rule applied to all sweets and savories, including those that came with the halo of temple ‘prasad’. When Gopi is the high priest on the badminton court, even God will have to wait.
At Rio, the instructions are that Sindhu is to travel to the dining arena and eat only with Gopi, and not wander anywhere alone. Sleep was another casualty. He advanced his waking up time by an hour (to 2am) and would spend the first 60 minutes of his day analysing previous games played by Sindhu and Srikanth. “You can feel lazy about having to get up at 3am everyday to reach the academy for training, but when you see Gopi Sir do it for you, you only feel inspired,” said Srikanth.
If badminton has earned respect courtesy the manner in which it has put up a spirited fight at Rio, it is largely due to Gopichand. His critics have tried to put him down citing conflict of interest in the national coach running his own private academy, but it is obvious to anyone who understands the game that much of this stems from envy.
Starting an academy wasn’t easy. Though in 2003, the Andhra Pradesh government, as a token of appreciation for his All-England triumph in 2001, allotted five acres of land to Gopichand to build his academy, the onus of raising the Rs 13 crore he needed to set it up, was entirely on Gopi’s shoulders. The several corporate houses whom Gopi approached, hemmed and hawed, but did not pitch in. He had to finally mortgage his house to raise Rs 3 crore and industrialist Nimmagadda Prasad donated Rs 5 crore. A few smaller donations helped kickstart the project.
Prasad’s only condition was that Gopi should get an Olympic medal. Gopi fulfilled that part of the deal in 2012 with Nehwal’s bronze. If Sindhu continues with her top form, Prasad surely will be delighted with such a remarkable return on investment.
With the increasing workload at the Academy, now located in two buildings in Hyderabad, one of the jokes is that Gopichand needs to be cloned. But Indian sport, if it wants to discard its also-ran status in most disciplines, needs to unearth many more Gopichands.