|PIC BY A. Prabhakar Rao
Pullela Gopichand is surrounded by budding stars. Theres his most famous protégé, the gritty Saina Nehwal who has fought her way to the second spot in the world and whos now in training for the World Badminton Championship in Paris later this month. Then, there are others too like 15-year-old P.V. Sindhu whos the national badminton sub-junior champion and world junior number five. Or look at P. Kashyap, whos ranked 25 among the men globally.
Its hard to miss the excitement at the ace badminton coachs gleaming Pullela Gopichand Nimmagadda Foundation Badminton Academy at Gachibowli, Hyderabad, these days. The large eight-court badminton hall is packed with budding badminton stars who are determined to smash their way to the top of the badminton world order. The youngsters exude a quiet confidence now that one of their number — Saina Nehwal — has shown that Indians can be up there with the best and that the Chinese arent invincible.
Indeed, the Gopichand Badminton Academy has emerged as a powerhouse of Indian badminton. It feels great, says Pullela Gopichand, former All-England Badminton Champion of Nehwals gritty climb to the number two rank after the Chinese Yihan Wang.
|After reaching the world number two
rank, Saina Nehwal is busy training for
the forthcoming World Badminton
Championship with coach Pullela
Gopichands not resting on the laurels though — and hes confident of producing more Nehwals too. Says Gopichand: Theres no magic pill. Were not doing anything different, just good training, good fitness and good food.
Of course, Nehwals success, especially her recent title wins at the Indian Open Grand Prix Gold, the Singapore Open Super Series and Indonesian Open Super Series, has given a huge boost to the sport — and to the Gopichand Badminton Academy. It [Sainas success] has come earlier than I expected. Because of her, badminton in our country is looking good. People are following the sport and shes been a great role model for youngsters too, says Gopichand.
Indeed, hes been turning down two students a day ever since he opened his Academy in 2008 — he was coaching from the nearby Gachibowli Indoor Stadium earlier. Hes set up a top- class residential academy with eight badminton courts, a gym, running track, swimming pool, 20 air-conditioned rooms for players et al.
Earlier this year, the Academy was designated as a nodal Asia Training Centre by the Badminton Asia Confederation. And last month, he opened a satellite academy in Gwalior in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh government. Hes already got 19 players there.
Badminton Academy has top-notch
facilities to meet all the training needs of a badminton
player; Pic by A. Prabhakar Rao
Meanwhile, at Gachibowli, Gopichand has around 150 students, of whom 25 are in residence all-year-round. He sets a punishing pace and is at the academy from 6.30am to 7.30pm each day. Hes on court almost seven hours of these playing with not just seniors like Saina but with the younger ones too.
A strict disciplinarian, Gopichands coaching style is straightforward. Theres no quick fix. Hard work and training give good results in matches, he says.
Ive been able to perform early in my career because of him. Hes always thinking about the weak areas and how to improve them, says Nehwal. Adds budding star Guru Sai Dutt, whos ranked 39th in the world: Hes very tough on court but very friendly off it. The best thing is he quickly adapts the training schedule if some aspect is weak, which is very important.
For now, the spotlight is on the forthcoming World Championships followed by the Commonwealth Games in October and the even tougher Asian Games — the Chinese will be there, remember — in November.
Gopichand has been chief coach to the national badminton team since 2006, and hes hopeful about Indias prospects at the world championship. Actually, he believes that Indian badminton is doing well despite the usual infrastructure and funding constraints.
For instance, the Sanave Thomas-Rupesh Kumar mens doubles team is among the top 15 in the world while Jwala Gutta and V. Diju are among the top 10 mixed doubles pairs. Among the men, Chetan Anand is ranked 15th in the world while Kashyap is 25th. Given the facilities, were giving fantastic results, he says.
|P. Kashyap and Guru Sai
Dutt (top) are among
the budding badminton stars emerging from
True, he has to battle political interference but its par for the course, he feels. At the Academy, meanwhile, hes in full command. I didnt like our system very much. I won the All-England when I was 27. Had I won it at 23, I would have had four-five years of the best badminton that I could have played, he says.
That happened because he had to resort to trial and error on every aspect of his game from fitness to training to scheduling international matches. At the academy, hes compressed that process now. Im so happy for Saina because shes at 20 what I was at 27. And thats great to make a player reach his potential at an early age, he says.
It wasnt easy setting up the academy though. The Andhra Pradesh government gifted him the land but he had to mortgage his house to construct it. Luckily, we got a sponsor in N. Prasad of Matrix Labs, he says. Hes spent about Rs 10 crore on it so far. But hes almost exhausted the corpus now and is looking for more sponsors.
Gopichand says hes designed the academy to provide everything a badminton player needs. For instance, till 2008, Saina would have to use a hotel gym or club swimming pool to train. Now, whatever is required is available here, he says.
Given that badminton is a gruelling sport and given Gopichands own accent on it, fitness is a key part of the training. And hes also incorporated Yoga and meditation — hes a keen practitioner of it.
Gopichands keen to draw players at a young age now. But his own tryst with badminton only began at 11 — after his parents moved to Hyderabad from a village in coastal Andhra. I didnt think Id play professional badminton then, he says.
He was always focused though and discipline came naturally too. I loved the sport and I would do anything to play better, he says.
While he kept playing badminton competitively through school, it was only at 18 that it became a career. It helped that his siblings were academically inclined — his brother went to IIT Madras and his sister was good in studies too. Since my only chance to continue playing was to excel in it, there was a lot of pressure at home to perform. Luckily, I wrote my IIT entrance exam and luckily, I failed, he recounts.
Instead, he won the junior nationals, after which his mother applied for jobs for him, and he landed his first one at Tata Steel at 18. That sealed the course that I would be a badminton player, he says.
Nevertheless, he went through tough times especially as he underwent four knee surgeries between 1994 and 2002. At one point after the 1994 injury, he wasnt sure hed come back. But he was determined. The injuries only showed me how deeply I loved the sport. Each time I was out, I worked doubly hard to ensure that I came back, he says.
| Gopichand with the All-England Championship trophy in 2001
He went on to win five national championships in a row from 1996. And he fared well internationally too, winning Grand Prix titles like the Scottish Open and Toulouse Open in 1999-2000. The pinnacle, of course, was the All-England Championship in 2001 — he was the first Indian to win it after Prakash Padukone did so in 1980. Its more precious to me today than it was the day I won it, he says now.
Given his all-consuming passion for the game, coaching was a natural choice for Gopichand. By 2003, he was already coaching informally and he set up his academy in 2004.
Now, hes confident of producing many more Nehwals. Already, there are budding stars like Kashyap, Guru Sai Dutt, B. Sai Praneeth, H.S. Prannoy and Saurabh Verma among the boys. And among the girls, hes got his hopes on junior champion Sikki Reddy, Sindhu and also 14-year-old Rituparna Das of Haldia.
Take Kashyap, who reached the semis at the recent Singapore Open. I want to break into the top 20, says Kashyap, who has been training under Gopichand from 2005. Till 2005, Id never won a single tournament. Its all credit to Gopi anna, he adds.
Gopichand believes his senior players like Saina and Kashyap will set the pace and provide fantastic role models for younger players. As for Saina, the going will only get tougher. Now, just to stay at number two, you need a win each time and thats going to put pressure. This time next year, for instance, shell be under tremendous pressure to defend these three titles, he says.
But hes confident shell handle it. If she continues to have the same desire to win and remains fit and injury-free, she has at least another seven to eight years ahead, in which she can produce fantastic results. Meanwhile, hes sure to serve up other smash winners too.