(Photograph courtesy : P Anil Kumar)
By T S Sudhir
I met Pullela Gopichand first in July 1998 for an interview at the Lal Bahadur stadium in Hyderabad, very close to where he used to live those days. When we reached the ground, we found preparations underway at the stadium for a film nite, later that evening. One insolent organiser gestured to us not to set up our camera anywhere on the ground.
“Who is he?” he asked rudely, pointing to Gopichand.
“He is India’s national badminton champion,” I replied.
“Okay. But you cannot do the interview here. We are organising a Raveena Tandon nite here.”
I stood my ground and completed the interview at the stadium, firm in my belief that Gopi has more right to the stadium than a Bollywood actress.
But then this is India, that follows no sport other than cricket. Little surprise then that after an All-England title, an Arjuna Award, a Rajiv Khel Ratna award and a Padma Shri, Gopi met another gentleman in 2008, who too asked “Aap Kaun?”
This gentleman’s visiting card read : M S Gill, Union minister for Sports, Govt of India. Gill asked Gopi to introduce himself when he and his pupil, Saina Nehwal went to meet the minister in Delhi, after Saina had reached the quarter-finals at the Beijing Olympics.
That’s the problem when you have a sports minister who spends more time training his gun at the likes of Suresh Kalmadi, V K Malhotra and V K Verma. Incidentally, Gopi is the only sportsperson to win all three top sporting honours : the Arjuna Award in 1999, the Rajiv Khel Ratna Award in 2001 and the Dronacharya Award in 2009.
Having known Gopi for twelve years now, I divide his playing career into the pre-All-England triumph and post that heady victory. His life was a struggle before All-England happened in 2001. His knee injury almost crippled his dreams of playing badminton. Practising in the stuffy indoor stadium in Hyderabad took its toll on the best of players.
Gopi’s constant refrain as a player used to be how the Badminton Association of India needs to recognise his need for a permanent travelling coach. I remember him cribbing about the quality of advice mediocre coaches would hand out to him.
What do they tell you before an important match, I asked him once. Gopi’s answer stumped me. “They would tell me, don’t hit the shuttle into the net, keep varying my shots, not to get tired.”
I remember Gopi and his mom calling me that evening in 1998, after my story on him was aired. Just to say thank you. Not that they had to.
His All-England victory made him a star. But he was different from the rest and believed it was important for a champion to be a good role model as well. He refused lucrative offers to endorse aerated drinks, saying “people have stopped drinking healthy drinks like fruit juices and people in the villages have actually begun to believe that soft drinks are good for health. Aerated drinks are not only bad for health, they are also bad for local industry. Thanks to aerated drinks, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find nimbu sherbet and coconut water.”
Sharp on court, sharp off it as well, Gopi wasted no time between calling it a day as a player and switching over to coaching. Gopi focussed on building his academy in Hyderabad that is now recognised as a centre for excellence by the World Badminton Federation. It is here that he lets his racquet do the talking. And his best brand is called Saina Nehwal, India.
The two share a special bond. Saina will not do anything that Gopi Bhaiya has said no to. That’s the kind of respect he commands. The Dronacharya Award and Arjuna Award that Gopi and Saina won together last year was a case of perfect timing. It was a way to tell the world that they indeed are the best teacher-pupil combine in the world of badminton.
Gopi is pleased with the way Saina conquered Chennai, Singapore and Jakarta. “She should not repeat any of the mistakes she made in the last three tournaments. And she should continue to be fit and mentally focussed on the game,” he says.
After her hattrick, Saina has three big tournaments lined up for 2010. The World championship, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. For her admirers expecting her to wear the number one crown, Gopi has a word of caution.
“To be number one, Saina needs to play in many more tournaments. We are not targetting the top spot. The idea is to play in big tournaments and do really well in them and preferably win them.”
Saina is the first smash hit on Gopi’s court. His academy is home to atleast half a dozen more players who are already making a name on the world stage. Time, I think, to demonstrate that Chinese goods alone cannot reign supreme in the world badminton market. It is time to proudly wear the `Made in India’ brand.
You can also find T S Sudhir’s blogs at http://www.thesouthreports.com