Padma Bhushan for Guru Gopichand

By T S Sudhir
“More than the news of the Padma Bhushan being conferred on him, Gopi is more delighted that Saina and Sindhu have entered the finals of the Syed Modi India Grand Prix Gold Badminton tournament,” said Subbaravamma, mother of National Badminton coach Pullela Gopichand.
That in a nutshell sums up Gopichand and his devotion to his craft. In fact, when P V Sindhu won the bronze medal at the World Badminton championship in August last year and comparisons with London Olympic Games bronze medallist Saina Nehwal began in right earnest, Gopichand said that his dream is to see his best two students in the final of a tournament because that will assure India of a gold and a silver. “We should look at them as Saina and Sindhu, not Saina versus Sindhu,” he had said.
Pullella Gopichand guiding Saina Nehwal .Photo/P.Anil kumar
In Lucknow for the India Grand Prix, Gopichand may well think Lady Luck has really smiled on him, with this double whammy. “I am happy and thrilled. It is recognition for what I have done for badminton in India, it will motivate to work more hard to make India a badminton powerhouse,” he said.
What makes this year’s Padma awards list even more special for Gopi is that well-known orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ashok Rajgopal, who perfomed three surgeries on the badminton player’s knee and a torn cartilage between 1994 and 1998 after his terrible accident during a doubles match on court, has also been awarded the Padma Shri. After ensuring Gopichand was once again fit to play, Dr Rajgopal had waived his fee and instead asked for an All-England Badminton championship trophy, saying “that will be my fee”. Gopichand ensured the doctor’s `fee’ was paid in 2001, when he won the title at Birmingham.
With the Padma Bhushan now, Gopichand becomes one of the most decorated sportspersons in India having been awarded the Rajiv Khel Ratna award, Padma Shri, Arjuna Award and Dronacharya award. 



Saina says Namaste London

By Uma Sudhir


India’s badminton ace Saina Nehwal is raring to go at next week’s World Chamoionships in London. The event also holds larger significance because of the fact that the venue will also host the Olympics’ event in 2012.

(Video of the story)

The monsoon is a different ball game

By T S Sudhir

Come monsoon, my mother can’t stop rewinding to her childhood spent in Thiruvilwamala in Kerala’s Thrissur district. As Hyderabad experienced the first pre-monsoon shower yesterday, I heard my mother telling Tejaswini (my daughter) how her school would reopen on the day the monsoon would set foot in Kerala.

My guess is there are few places in India more enchanting and romantic than Kerala, particularly in the month when the rain is born. The umbrellas those days, my mother was telling Teju, were made with a wooden stick in the centre, that would not open once the wood expanded after getting wet. Which meant only the huge leaves of colocasia plucked from the roadside served as cover for the head. In one hand would be the school bag, lunch box in the other, along with trying to balance the leaf, which would sway wildly in the wind.

“What fun,” exclaimed Teju.

“By the time, we would reach the school, a distance of 2 km by foot, barefoot, we would be totally wet and through the day, the uniform would get dry. Only to get wet all over again in the afternoon.” I could tell my mother’s thoughts had gone a long, long way back in time.

The Kerala monsoon is not a T-20 like three and a half hour long affair. In keeping with Kerala’s hartal culture, it is as if even God once it begins to rain, goes on a strike and refuses to turn the tap off. And it is part of everyday animated conversation about how there has been no let-up in the rains at all, much like a grandparent complaining indulgently about how naughty a grandchild is. Neither does the grandparent wants things to be any different, nor the people of Kerala. Everyone in the state loves a good monsoon.

The Keralite’s other major passion, football, is back on the ground with a splash in the rain. Particularly in Malappuram, the Mecca of football in Kerala. Since this is the off-season, when professional football players rest, seven-a-side matches are held not just to celebrate the monsoon but also to test the prowess of players to battle the opposition and the elements. It is a battle of wits, dirt and skill on a slushy field.

Passion for the game in the rain runs so high that Malappuram even has a Monsoon Football Club which organises some 50 tournaments during the month. And soccer-crazy Malayalees return to Kerala in June from the Middle East just to watch these matches.

Pretty similar is the case with the Kanga league in Mumbai, described as the `heart and soul of Mumbai cricket’. This tournament is to cricket in the monsoon what Malappuram is to soccer. And cricketers to date swear that if you want to perfect your technique, you got to test your wares on a wet wicket at the Kanga League when the Rain God is showing no mercy on the Maximum city. And budding cricketers don’t need to look far for inspiration. A certain Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar honed his craft here as a 12-year-old. He has since hit 99 international centuries.



Breathless, Kashyap takes your breath away

By T S Sudhir

Arvind Bhatt won the National badminton championship at Rohtak in Haryana this January. He defeated P Kashyap 21-13, 21-17  in the finals.
That’s what the records book will tell you.
But there was another champion, though he remained uncrowned. Parupalli Kashyap. For him getting there required more than talent and hardwork. It required grit and willpower to fight through a life-threatening situation and get to the finishing line, simply because he refused to give up.

The world number 25 describes the 75th Senior Nationals as a “horrible experience”.
“It was one degree inside the stadium. And I started coughing on day one. But I could not take my medication for asthma as the Badminton Federation had not got it approved. I struggled through my semis against Sai Praneeth as in the finals against Arvind. The approval that I could take the medication for asthma came after the Nationals got over.”
Bureaucratic red tape that can leave a sportsperson short of breath, haven’t we heard that before. Everytime Kashyap changes his medication, he has to get the TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) certificate from WADA. It is a tedious process to undergo the tests and produce medical certificates to renew the certificate every year.

Everytime the 24-year-old steps on the badminton court, he is up against two opponents. One, on the other side of the court and the second, himself. A player with a breathtaking style, Kashyap has to take tremendous care to ensure he is not breathless on court.
That’s why two inhalers (one for regular use and one SOS), tablets and syrup get into Kashyap’s badminton kit at the same time as his racquets, towels, shoes and shuttle cocks. It was only in 2004 that Kashyap’s succumbing frequently to cough, nasal congestion and breathlessness was diagnosed as triggered by asthma. All through his growing up years, everytime Kashyap reported the symptoms, he was inevitably prescribted antibiotics that led to fever. Kashyap feels a three-year stay in Bangalore between 2000 and 2003 made it worse, because of the pollen content in the city’s air.

“In all those years, my body did not grow strong despite all the training. From the age of 13 to 19, I was playing simply because I loved playing badminton. I am glad my parents were supportive and let me do just that. But at 19, when with the medication and training, my body became strong, I started winning.”
The medication had transformed Kashyap as a player. From just playing the game he loved and enjoyed, he started playing to win. 2004-07 were the years when Kashyap truly arrived as a player. Till one day in 2007, when he realised the medication was not working.

It was at a tournament in Thailand that he discovered after a morning match, he was feeling drained out for the evening match. Surprising, he thought, considering his rigorous training was much more strenuous. He realised the humid climate was aggravating his asthma, making it difficult for him to breathe.
“There would be instances where I would train very hard here but the moment I would go to a humid or a cold place, I would not be able to breathe properly. And I would get out in the first or the second round. I did not know I needed to increase the dosage of the medication or shift to a different medicine.”
Since then, Kashyap works as much on his game as on his medication. 2010 saw him fail at the All-England because the heater was not working inside the stadium and the very cold weather meant, he struggled to play beyond the first 15 points. “But even when the going is tough, I don’t feel like stopping, I just feel like going on, ” grins Kashyap, flashing his shy and very affable smile.
Kashyap says he did his own research on the net to find out what other sportspersons suffering a similar condition were doing. He found out those in the US and UK, for example, used completely different drugs and higher dosages. He sought help from the Olympic Gold Quest Foundation that was supporting him to see a specialist. It made life a bit easier but not a cakewalk.

The 24-year-old says his bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games last year was like magic.

“I had been training the whole year for the Commonwealth. There was a five-week long training camp but the first three weeks I was only coughing. I couldn’t take new medicine prescribed by the doctor because it needed to be approved by the Federation. I was very sad. But then the cough suddenly stopped and I trained for the last two weeks and won the bronze,” he says. Perhaps it was the power of the mind over the body.

Have there been instances where you wanted to just quit because the struggle is so much more than what other players had to go through, I ask.
“I don’t think too much about it because if I think too much, I will feel sad about it and I may end up stopping playing also. There have been many instances, where I have felt that I was training very hard and something happens and I cannot play. So I wonder if there is any point in training so hard. So I feel low. Then I tell myself, take it as it comes.”
Kashyap says he has to pay attention to detail which other sportspersons would ignore. Like taking care where he sits, ensure there is no dust around where he trains or sleeps, what he eats.
As Kashyap sweats it out at the Pullela Gopichand academy in Hyderabad, changing from a blue to a red to a dark blue T-shirt, he knows to take flight, he will have to draw as much on his talent as on his willpower. He says his goal was to break into the top 10 by the end of the year and the top 8 before the London Olympics, to stand a chance of a good draw.

“But after the Malaysian Open, where in the second round, I felt totally out of breath despite apparently no environmental trigger, I changed my approach. I don’t think about the goals now. I take everyday as it comes. I am confident that if my health is okay, I will achieve my target. I do what I must and try not to worry about what could go wrong.”
And if Kashyap with his mantra of `Impossible is nothing’ achieves his target, it surely will take India’s collective breath away at the victory of the human spirit.

(Photo courtesy :

When will India discover a new sporting religion?

By T S Sudhir
When Saina Nehwal crashed to a shock defeat in the first round of the Indian Series Open in Delhi on April 27, a championship everyone had expected her to win, her father Dr Harvir Singh Nehwal told me that evening, “Mark my words, she will bounce back strongly in the Malaysian Open. This girl just hates losing.”

Dr Harvir Singh’s `bachcha’ did not let her Papa down. She reached the finals of the Malaysian Open, getting the better of world champion Wang Lin enroute, in the quarter-finals. But Sunday, May 8 was not to be her day as she lost to world number three Xin Wang of China. This was Saina’s first defeat in 18 appearances in the finals.

That Sunday evening at 4 pm, a hopeful Dr Harvir Singh decided to watch the match at the Pullela Gopichand academy along with some friends from the media. As they surfed the sports channels, they discovered to their surprise that not a single channel was airing the match live.

Ditto the newspapers. In an IPL-suffocated media, only lip-service was paid to India’s world number 4’s exploits in Malaysia. Double column space in the newspapers, even when she beat the world champ. TV channels couldn’t completely ignore the mandatory news. Thankyou.

I am not deaf to the cliche of cricket being religion in India but Indians also need to get a reality check. Because out there in the towns and cities, the success of a Saina Nehwal is quietly spawning a quiet revolution.

Take Andhra Pradesh for instance. The state today has 17600 registered badminton players, the highest in the country, and these are players who play for the districts, state and the country. Important to note, there aren’t 17600 cricketers in Andhra Pradesh. And 294 indoor stadia in the state are helping players court success.

One of them is the badminton academy in Nandyal, promoted by local MP S P Y Reddy. The coach here is Venkat, Pullela Gopichand’s contemporary and friend. This academy has seen many a historic battle. Saina won the AP state title here in 2004 and the sub-junior national title the following year. Gopi has been a pillar of support and his photograph adorns the entrance to the academy.

Venkat shows me 8-year-old Vijay who is among the young talent showing promise at his academy. As Vijay warms up, his father Nagendra is keeping an eye on him. Nagendra is a RTC bus conductor on the Nandyal-Tadipatri route.

“I was a ball badminton player. I wanted Vijay to do well in badminton,” says Nagendra. “Our family was settled in Anantapur district. We shifted to Nandyal so that Vijay can do well in badminton.”

Another young boy greets me with a Namaste. His name is Dipesh and he has come that morning from Nepal, with his father, to improve his skills in badminton. 

I am surprised. “Why from Nepal to Nandyal?”  I ask.

Dipesh’s dad Harak Singh Dhani, who works in Nepal Telecom, replies. “Dipesh is Nepal’s under-17 badminton champion. But if he has to do better, he needs quality coaching. There are no academies in Nepal while badminton is now big in India. We had heard about this academy run by Venkat Sir. After four months in Nandyal, he will shift him to an academy in Hyderabad.”

The Pullela Gopichand academy, nominated by the Badminton Asia Federation as the Asia Training Centre, could be Dipesh’s destination if he improves his skills sufficiently by September. Since he retired as a player, Gopi has been focussed on proving that `Made in India’ can beat goods `Made in China’.

While the media focusses on one Saina, there are many more waiting in the pipeline, being chiselled and polished at this academy. Among them Sikki Reddy and P V Sindhu, touted as Sainas in the making.

However, the factory where the gems are first spotted amidst the crowd of talent that aspires to take flight is the Lal Bahadur stadium, located in the heart of Hyderabad. It was here that Gopi learnt to hold the racquet from the late Hamid Hussain in the mid-80s. As did  Saina in May 1999.

It was this indoor stadium that Gopi would head to, every day, twice a day, for close to 8 hours. Venkat talks about how if Gopi did not do well at a particular tournament abroad, he would insist on being taken straight from the old Hyderabad airport at Begumpet directly to the Lal Bahadur stadium, where he would work on the mistakes he committed.

Goverdhan, the Sports Authority coach at the stadium takes pride that for more than 15 years now, children from here have dominated the national championships in every category, from under-10, under-13, under-16 to under-19. He rues that there could have already been many more Sainas if only the young, promising talent had got the right support, guidance, opportunity and push to make it to the next level.

As I sit down before the telly in the evening to see the Warriors, Knight Riders and Chargers battling the Challengers, Tuskers and the Royals, I wonder how many years it will be before India discovers a new religion. The challenge is for the fragile shuttlecock to survive the Gaylestorms of the IPL and find space and airtime in a remote that doesn’t quite know how to move on from Dhoni’s devils. 

Fire on court

By T S Sudhir

For the last few years, Saina Nehwal and Indian badminton have been synonymous with each other. The ferocity of the success of the Haryanvi-Hyderabadi hurricane has eclipsed all other elements who too form part of the galaxy of Indian badminton.

The most prominent of them being Jwala Gutta. True to her name, Jwala is fire on court. Her critics would say, her problems with the badminton establishment have arisen because she is fiery off court as well. 

“I have always spoken my mind. That doesn’t mean I am a bad person,” reasons Jwala.
“We have been performing despite getting no appreciation. If the doubles players like me, Ashwini, Diju get even 2 per cent of the support and appreciation the Badminton association of India and media gives to Saina Nehwal, we would do much better. Diju and I did not have any sponsors even when we were world number 6. But Saina had sponsors when she was world number 15 and that played a part in her becoming world number 2.”
Jwala is right to a large extent. The BAI and the media have been largely focussed on Saina and her exploits, ignoring other equally commendable achievements on the world badminton stage. Jwala and V Diju till the other day were world number 6 (the ranking has now slipped to 11) and the two make a formidable pair on court.
The Commonwealth Games was Jwala’s chance to show what mettle she is made of. She went into the tournament, fighting “canards” of a link-up with former India cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin and their respective marriages being on the rocks because of this.

A lot of things were said about me in an attempt to distract me from my game. Now after Ashwini and I won the women doubles gold at the CWG, they have shut up,” says Jwala.

“Did the talk upset you and were you going into every match wanting to prove a point,” I ask.
“I will not say the personal canards bothered me because my family and friends always knew the truth and that helped me relax. Did I go into the court with a point to prove? Well, kind of and that is because I have proved myself time and again. Two years back, when the Badminton Association of India (BAI) had put us out of the team, I and Diju moved in the mixed doubles ranking from world number 89 to 6. It was such a big achievement but not a word of appreciation from the BAI.”
Does the BAI’s alleged step-treatment create a divide between Saina and the rest of the team, I ask Jwala.
“No, not at all. We are all happy for each other. I do not resent Saina’s success. She deserves every bit of it. We only feel bad that when we are also working as hard, the BAI does not bother to push our case. It is quite degrading and one feels very demotivated. If this is the way things continue, no junior would take up doubles badminton. Anyone else in my place would have quit long back,” says Jwala.
Jwala is now preparing for the Asian Games in China with Ashwini and Diju. The level of competition at the Games that start on November 12, will be much more tough than CWG, she admits. “Physically we are very fit, it is mentally that we have to be fit if we are to beat the Chinese,” she says.
As Jwala prepares for her on-court battles, all of India would hope she carries the embers of her fiery form at Delhi to Guangzhou. Time to torch the Great Wall of China, Jwala !