By Vikrant Patwardhan Aug. 20, 2016
Every badminton player who knew Gopi, knew there was something different about him. This difference would go on to change the course of India’s Olympic history.
Back in the day, nobody really liked Pullela Gopichand.
The year was 1993 and we were at a nationals camp at the Sports Authority of India in Bangalore. The session that morning was interval training. While the herd ran around the ground, alternating between slow and fast at the count of whistles from the coach, one guy ran on the opposite side of the herd timing his own intervals. I had heard of this guy. He was supposed to be the wunderkind – a favourite of the association-hired Chinese coaches who would recommend us for tournaments. In the dog-eat-dog world of national-level sport, the favoured child finds no friends, so we ignored him for most of the camp.
I saw Gopi again a year later, in 1994 at the national games in Pune. Gopi was playing a frenetic doubles game when he suddenly fell and tore a ligament in his knee. In those days, a knee injury had career-ruining potential – the treatment and counselling for recovery just wasn’t adequate. We had all heard of Manoj Kumar, a promising player from Andhra Pradesh, who had bowed out on the back of a similar issue.
Gopi had been completely written off by the fraternity. But we had clearly underestimated him, because 12 months later, Gopi was not only back on court, he was once again sweeping the games. He won the senior nationals in Pune and eventually fought his way to be ranked India #1. We knew then that Pullela Gopichand was here to stay.
There is a lot of talk about the role hard work and ambition play in sport. Many a movie and more than a few million motivational posters stand testament to it. I think that’s just the headwork. The foundation of winning may be laid by the mind and the body, but on court, it’s all about the heart. You have to have the courage to see through what you started. You have to refuse to back down even in the face of inevitable defeat. It takes balls of steel.
As a #3 ranked player, my goal was to beat Gopi. But I would lose in straight sets almost every time. Once in Bangalore, I managed to come close. I had got off to a flying start and won the first game. Thrilled at having beaten a #1 player, I flew on that elation and got a fairly decent lead in the second one. But Gopi took the defeat personally. That day he dug his heels in, put his heart on the court, and bounced back harder and stronger, skimming me through the next twenty minutes to eventually win that match.
Gopi started hitting the courts at 3.30 am to train Sindhu for half an hour before the seniors arrived, just to ensure she got her due without compromising on the quality of attention the others deserved.
We finally got a chance to team up at the Sudirman Cup & World Championships in Scotland in 1997. By then I’d warmed up to the guy. He was aggressive and arrogant but had the goods to back it up. One day, as we stood watching Dong Jiong (the then World #1) play, I asked Gopi if Dong would win this championship. Gopi looked me in the eye and said in his most calm, unexcitable voice, “I will win”. Unlike most of us, Gopi didn’t suffer from the paralysing feeling of inadequacy that most Indian players face on the world stage.
I was different. I may have had the talent, but I didn’t have Gopi’s gumption. By the late 1990s, I gave up badminton and began studying law while still continuing with my job with the Indian Customs. I made my peace with a different kind of life. It was wholly different from the high-adrenaline world of sports, but I lived vicariously through my friends as they blazed ahead in their careers.
On the night that Gopi won the celebrated All England Finals in 2001, I watched him play on an eight-inch colour TV sitting alone in my government quarters in Powai. I cried unabashedly when he won. My tears had a little to do with love, considering a friend had won the most prestigious tournament in the world. But they also had a lot to do with loss: Why was I not like him?
That’s as far as Gopi would go as a professional player. But his story was not over. Pro badminton may have been done with Gopi. But Gopi was not done with badminton.
The Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy came up on the back off a mortgage on Gopi’s house in Hyderabad. The idea for the academy was born from regret. Without the benefit of proper coaching and guidance, Gopi had been forced into retreat by several career-threatening knee injuries. In a country devoid of government support, it is not easy to provide infrastructure for gifted young players and make them shine on the world stage. But that’s exactly what Gopi’s done.
In 2014, Open magazine called the academy a factory that manufactures A1 badminton players. Right from Saina Nehwal to Srikanth Kidambi and now P V Sindhu, Gopi’s academy has been taking under its wing anyone who shows an interest in the game, for as little as ₹2,000 a month.
The story of P V Sindhu started about 12 years ago at his academy, when she was eight. While Gopi had to dedicate time to Saina and other seniors, he noticed the talent and hunger in young Sindhu very early, even though her knees were weak and her coverage off the back of the court was sluggish. Gopi started hitting the courts at 3.30 am to train Sindhu for half an hour before the seniors arrived, just to ensure she got her due without compromising on the quality of attention the others deserved.
I haven’t met Gopi for years now. Life has taken us down very different paths, but I can imagine the nights he must have spent plotting and planning Sindhu’s success, firing shuttles at her from his wooden perch, honing her strategy, sharpening her volleys, and most importantly, telling her that taking down a #1 rank player doesn’t take much. All it takes is a deep breath and an unwavering voice deep in your heart that says – I will win.
Vikrant has represented India at various international tournaments and was awarded the Shiv Chhatrapati Award for the year 1997-1998, the highest award for sports given to a sportsperson by the state of Maharashtra. He now practises law.