From Saina to Sindhu: How Pullela Gopichand is helping Indian shuttlers stay on top of their game
Former No 1 player Pullela Gopichand is widely regarded as the Dronacharya of Indian badminton. His academy in Hyderabad has trained the recent crop of top players, including PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Parupalli Kashyap, Sai Praneeth and Srikanth Kidambi.
It’s a Friday morning. Young shuttlers clad in their jerseys, thumping their feet against the concrete flooring welcome you into their world as their coach amplifies the tone of his instructions.
Located at the Outer Ring Road of GachiBowli, Hyderabad, the discipline in the stadium focuses your attention on India’s evolving badminton culture. With medals and trophies adorning the interiors, the Pullela Gopichand Academy is the new champ-making factory for Indian shuttlers.
As I enjoy the vibe of sportsmanship, I am greeted by the man of the hour. Former No 1 Indian badminton player, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Arjuna Awardee and the Dronacharya of Indian Badminton: Pullela Gopichand.
India this month sent its largest contingent to the ongoing World Badminton Championship in Glasgow, Scotland, and the country showcased a best-ever show in a world championship with two medals (including PV Sindhu winner silver after a gruelling final). With this on his mind, the current National Coach candidly speaks about his journey.
The birth of a legacy
Born in 1973 at Nagandla, Prakasam district, in Andhra Pradesh to a banker and homemaker couple, Pullela Subash Chandra and Subbaravamma.
The 44-year-old recalls that cricket was his first love during his growing-up years.
It was only when the nearby stadium where he used to play was shut down that he opted for badminton. The then 10-year-old Gopichand and his mother would walk for miles and avoid public transport to save money. Fueling his son’s dream, Subbaravamma once sold her jewellery to buy a badminton racket for the budding sportsman.
Talking about his humble beginnings, he says,
At a young age, parents are a huge influence. My mom has always been supportive; luckily my entire family has stood beside me through thick and thin. Life becomes so much easy when you have a supportive family. I owe my journey to them.
Starting of an era
Under the aegis of Syed Mohammed Arif, a recipient of Dronacharya and Padma Shri Award, Gopi started his badminton career. Eventually, Prakash Padukone enrolled the young champion into his academy, which was built in 1994 in the heart of vibrant Bengaluru.
It was in 1996 that Gopi brought home his first big title, clinching the National Badminton Championship in 1996. He went on to win the title five times in a row, till 2000.
In 1997, when Padukone, the then star of Indian badminton, brought home the trophy from the All England Open Badminton Championships, the country obsessed with cricket, chanted a new mantra.
Recollecting those days, the Indian coach says:
In a lot of ways Prakash Sir’s win at the All England Open Badminton Championships inspired me as a young sportsperson. His win was important to the country. Players like Dipankar Bhattacharya and George Thomas added value to the sport, along with him.
Matching footsteps with his inspiration, he entered the Commonwealth Games held in Malaysia in 1998. This was also the same year when cricket debuted in the tournament as a sport. The nation closed the tournament with a medal tally of 25, off which Gopi contributed a silver and a bronze.
In 2001, he won the All England Open Badminton Championships in Birmingham, becoming the second Indian to clinch the trophy after Padukone.
Betting on his dreams
In 2003, 30-year-old Pullela Gopichand announced his retirement. Keen to improve the quality of badminton and offer the infrastructure the sport deserves, he opened the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in 2008. For this, he mortgaged his house and later found funding from Nimmagada Prasad, an industrialist from Hyderabad.
Today, the academy has trained two Olympic medalists: Saina Nehwal (bronze in London Olympics 2012) and PV Sindhu (silver in Rio Olympics 2016) among other prominent Indian shuttlers. In June this year, Srikanth Kidambi lifted the men’s singles title at the Indonesian Open.
We built the academy with passion. It scares me to even think about it now. There was a lot of bullishness, we didn’t know if it would succeed but we gave it our best. Nobody believed the academy could be a path-breaker unless we proved it. Those days were more difficult and I am very happy that it worked.
In its almost decade-long existence, the academy has foreseen the future of the country’s badminton sensations. The academy, which started with only 25 players, has grabbed over 10 hotspots in the top 50 badminton players in the world.
Keen to consider talent over commercialization, the academy offers total scholarships for over 50-60 percent of its players.
There are a lot of players from the lower strata/economically challenged background of society and we are making space for them. We believe a lot of talent emerges from that strata of society. When we started the academy in 2004 we only had 25 players. The oldest was Kashyap and the youngest was Sindhu. As time went by, at least 10 of them played top 50 in the world. So it has been a great journey so far. But we unfortunately don’t have as many new admissions as we would have liked, he says.
PV Sindhu bags silver at World Championships after a thrilling final
Wind beneath his wings
Like all great stories, the Padma Shri recipient credits his success to the feminine superpower in his life. His mother and wife have stood behind him and his dreams through his initial days and continue to do so. His wife, PVV Lakshmi, also a badminton player, represented India at Atlanta Olympics in 1996. A former National Champion herself, Lakshmi is spearheading administration at the Pullela Gopichand Academy.
His children, Gayathri and Sai Vishnu, have taken the onus to continue their father’s legacy with continuous achievements in the U-15 and U-13 categories.
Coach versus player
I have loved my roles as player and coach. The innate need for success or to support players is rather childlike. I am very happy with the way things have gone for me, the Indian coach says.
In 1994, when he suffered a major knee injury, he concluded the toll such mishaps take on a player. But he bounced back from the injury he sustained during a doubles match.
I only say that there is a lot that is possible. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope after injury. I have learnt this from my own experience.
He also backs evolution for every player.
World badminton changes, opponents change, conditions change and the formats change, and it is important that we keep abreast. It is important that we evolve ahead of the competition, he says.
Gopi’s 11-year journey is often cited as the reason that ended China’s dominance in the sport. Praveen Sattaru, a national-award winning director, is all set to make a film to bring to life this journey on screen. The biopic will be released in three languages - Telugu, English and Hindi.
Sudheer Babu, a former student of Gopichand who has now turned to acting, will portray the role of the badminton guru on the silver screen. The film will be shot in China, Japan, Ireland and Scotland.
One cannot help but applaud the game-changer who has fueled the dreams of young badminton players. As he signs off, Gopi’s parting words are:
By God's grace, I have been able to achieve whatever I could as a player. Whatever I could not achieve as a player, I have been able to as a coach.
Pullela Gopichand has got the smash down perfectly!
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