| Pullela Gopichand and Saina Nehwal |
Calcutta: Former All England champion Pullela Gopichand, who is Saina Nehwal’s coach and mentor, spoke to The Telegraph from London on Sunday morning.
Gopichand, 38, has been working full-time with Saina for the past eight years. Both are Hyderabad-based.
The following are excerpts
QWhen did the bronze medal sink in for Saina and for you?
A (Laughs) Took me at least 14-15 minutes and, I suppose, it took Saina the same time... We’d been prepared for a long match, but the circumstances changed dramatically. The medal came as a pleasant shock. Leading up to the match, all of us hadn’t really recovered from the semi-final loss, to Wang Yihan.
How did Team Saina celebrate?
We had dinner together at the hotel, which is next to the Wembley Arena... We ordered pasta and pizza... It had actually been a long day and, by then, it had sunk in that Saina would be returning home with a medal. It felt so good.
Was Saina over the moon?
I’d describe the celebrations as calm... We thanked God and realised that millions had been praying... Saina remembered all who’d been supporting her in this journey. Then, there were calls... From her family, from my family.
Why aren’t you all staying at the Games Village?
Because that’s around an hour-and-a-half away from the Wembley Arena... We’d be losing too much time commuting... Most of the other teams, if not all, also chose to stay at the same hotel.
But didn’t some of the sheen come off the medal as Saina had been trailing when Xin Wang conceded the match?
In a way, yes. It would have been better had Saina won on the court. Having said that, she didn’t have a role in her opponent’s injury. For her dedication (alone), she deserved a medal.
What are Saina’s plans for the day?
Could be sightseeing... Could be shopping. It’s not even 8.00 am here.
Prakash Padukone broke the glass ceiling when he won the All England in 1980... You did the same in 2001. In the context of Indian badminton, where does Saina’s bronze stand?
Saina’s a catalyst... Indian badminton has taken a big jump. She’d been making a difference for some years now.
Could this bronze turn Saina’s head, so to say, or is she too level-headed?
Look, a certain amount of grounding is important and she has that... You can’t be an Olympic winner without some grounding... People having a one-off success may get carried away, but Saina has been a successful sportswoman for the past few years. Her feet are on the ground and she’s definitely aiming higher.
How much of the credit should be going to you?
That’s not for me to spell out... I’ve made a contribution... I first worked with her for a brief period in 2003 and became her full-time coach a year later.
What were your first impressions of Saina?
In 2003, she would run a lot and wouldn’t allow the shuttle to fall at her feet... She was gritty, but wasn’t strong on technique... I had to work a lot with her... Saina’s self-belief, though, has always been exceptionally high.
Getting back to the present, what were your expectations in London?
Let me tell you how we approached the Olympics... I didn’t put Saina under any more pressure than what she’d experience in the build-up to a big tournament... That was a critical part of the preparations. Once the Olympics began, we didn’t talk too much about the matches, focusing instead on recovery and the warm-ups... Of course, we’d study the videos a lot.
Generally, what do you tell Saina?
The basic funda is to do the simple things correctly.
What do you think is special about Saina’s game?
Very few play like Saina... She’s aggressive, very physical and gets stronger as the games get longer. Her USP is that she’s not afraid to play the big shots even at critical moments, on the critical points.
How much has Saina improved, say, over the past year?
A lot... Saina has to keep improving... Earlier, her opponents would exploit her forehand, now they’ll be looking at something else. Badminton is like chess, you’ve got to plan and stay ahead of the field. The circuit, let me add, is highly competitive.
Where can Saina get better?
Saina’s fitness can go up... Her strokes can improve... With experience, her strategy will improve. She’s only 22.
And, when will Saina beat Wang?
Hopefully, sooner rather than later... She’d been very well-placed a few times in the past, but couldn’t close out those matches.
Saina turned down four endorsements in order to focus exclusively on her game... That’s rare in the present times...
Well, Saina could have done the endorsements and not won at the Olympics! Four endorsements would have meant between 16-20 days of commitments to the sponsors... While endorsements get you money, they also eat into your time for training. I didn’t go out of Hyderabad for four months before the Olympics and made Saina do the same.
Does Saina consult you on endorsements?
Lastly, what’s next for Saina?
(Laughs) The circuit’s there, but I’ll just let Saina be for a week or so... After that, we’ll talk. We’ll be back home on Tuesday. Saina hasn’t reached her destination... The journey is on. There are goals to achieve.