Guru Gopic­hand

He men­tored Saina Ne­hwal and P. V. Sindhu. The for­mer All- Eng­land cham­pion’s acad­emy is the nurs­ery and fin­ish­ing school of shut­tlers.

India Today - - INSIDE - By T. S. Sud­hir

Jana Gana Mana Ad­hi­nayaka Jaya he Bharata Bhagya Vid­haata ...’ The strains of the National An­them pierce the strong morn­ing wind blow­ing past the por­tico of the Pul­lela Gopic­hand Bad­minton Acad­emy in the Gachi­bowli area of Hyderabad. Singing the an­them are the best of In­dian bad­minton: Saina Ne­hwal, Paru­palli Kashyap, P. V. Sindhu, RMV Guru Sai Dutt and at least 20 oth­ers. It is a rit­ual they per­form twice a week for in­spi­ra­tion.

Be­fore step­ping in­side the acad­emy, many of the play­ers bend down, touch the floor and then their fore­head. It is a ges­ture that tells you what this

gu­rukul means to each one of them. If they were bad­minton play­ers 10 years ago in In­dia, an acad­emy like this would have been un­think­able. To­day it is a dream come true, thanks to the per­se­ver­ance of one man— national bad­minton coach Pul­lela Gopic­hand.

The acad­emy to­day trains 150 young bad­minton play­ers, 40 of whom stay on cam­pus. They train with eight coaches and six sup­port staff. The eight Yonex courts are com­ple­mented by a swim­ming pool, a health club, re­hab and well­ness cen­tre, a football ground, run­ning track, ice and steam bath fa­cil­i­ties, jacuzzi and a cafe­te­ria. “`` When I was play­ing, I went abroad look­ing for places to train to get bet­ter,” says Gopic­hand. “Some­times I was re­fused en­try be­cause coaches there would not want out­siders to know how their sys­tem worked. I wished we had such a place so we did not have to beg.”

Af­ter his All- Eng­land ti­tle in 2001, the Andhra Pradesh govern­ment al­lot­ted five acres of land to Gopic­hand to build his acad­emy in 2003 but the Rs 13 crore needed for the pro­ject was dif­fi­cult to come by. “To the cor­po­rate sec­tor we would go and say, we have world- class play­ers. They would laugh and say, come to­mor­row. That to­mor­row never came,” re­calls Gopic­hand. He mort­gaged his house to raise

Rs 3 crore; in­dus­tri­al­ist and me­dia mogul Nim­ma­gadda Prasad do­nated Rs 5 crore. His con­di­tion? An Olympic medal. A prom­ise Gopic­hand ful­filled when Saina won bronze at the Lon­don Olympics last year.

As a player, Gopic­hand him­self strug­gled with short­age of qual­ity shut­tle cocks, no con­cept of re­hab or world- class train­ing, lack of spon­sors and not many coaches who pos­sessed the guile to breach the Chi­nese wall. Play­ing ca­reer over, he started coach­ing a small bunch of chil­dren dur­ing the sum­mer of 2003. Among them was 14- yearold Saina, a player who mir­rored him in her fight­ing spirit and re­fusal to get in­tim­i­dated by big names. Gopi fo­cused en­tirely on Saina. An ef­fort that cul­mi­nated in that teary- eyed mo­ment last Au­gust when coach and stu­dent watched the In­dian tri­colour go up at the Wem­b­ley Arena in Lon­don, even as the Olympics bronze medal adorned Saina’s neck. To­day, the Haryana- born girl stands tall, not only as the flag- bearer of In­dian bad­minton, but also as the player who has mounted the most se­ri­ous chal­lenge to the great wall of Chi­nese bad­minton.

“He knows ex­actly how to train you, the ar­eas where you are weak, what all to do to win tour­na­ments,” says Saina. “In the past nine years, I have known what she has been do­ing ev­ery sin­gle minute. You can say she has been ob­ses­sively mon­i­tored by me,” says the coach.

Saina’s suc­cess has spawned a rev­o­lu­tion of sorts, with par­ents flock­ing to the acad­emy. ‘ Fo­cus’ is coach Pul­lela Gopic­hand’s mid­dle name. That shows not just in his re­luc­tance to take un­der his wing some­one who “will play bad­minton along with pur­su­ing aca­demics full- time, while also go­ing out to party over the week­end, eat­ing what he or she likes and a va­ca­tion in the US”, but also in his per­sonal ded­i­ca­tion to his cause. Gopic­hand is the first to en­ter the acad­emy at 4.15 a. m. and calls it a day only at 7 p. m. Still ex­tremely fit at 39, he is an able spar­ring part­ner and keeps an ea­gle eye on what each player is do­ing on each of the eight courts. “Bend your knee,” he says sternly as he guides a batch of 20 play­ers through a ses­sion of shadow- prac­tis­ing a net smash.

From Saina, now 23, to the most ju­nior player at the acad­emy, ev­ery­one knows Gopic­hand’s word is the law. “What­ever he says, we fol­low blindly,” says Sindhu, 18, who ex­ploded on the bad­minton map with a bronze at the world cham­pi­onships in Guangzhou, China, early in Au­gust. The com­par­isons have al­ready be­gun with Saina. Gopic­hand thinks it is un­fair to com­pare Sindhu with Saina, who has 16 ma­jor in­ter­na­tional ti­tles to her credit: “I do not want a Saina ver­sus, or Saina or Sindhu sce­nario. I would like it to be Saina and Sindhu, hunt­ing to­gether at the world level.”

The big­gest ad­van­tage with hav­ing the best of In­dian bad­minton— the present stars and GenNext— un­der one roof at the acad­emy is that in­spi­ra­tion is a con­stant. Young­sters get to see their role mod­els all the time and learn from them. Like 17year- old Sayyam from Ch­hat­tis­garh. To­day Gopic­hand trains both Sindhu and Sayyam to­gether on the same court.

The chal­lenge for Gopi now is to cre­ate a pool of coaches who will be able to un­earth and train tal­ent be­yond Hyderabad. At the mo­ment, his acad­emy teems with play­ers from Ker­ala, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh. And com­pared to for­eign academies in Europe, where you need to shell out 65 eu­ros per hour to prac­tise, a player spends Rs 2,000 per month to train at In­dia’s best acad­emy, with hostellers pay­ing Rs 5,000 ev­ery month.

The only time Gopic­hand al­lows his play­ers to fly high is to hit a smash. Oth­er­wise, the virtue of re­main­ing grounded is drilled into ev­ery pro­tégé. Which is why within hours of re­turn­ing to Hyderabad late at night af­ter her Guangzhou hero­ics, Sindhu was at the court early next morn­ing. As was Gopic­hand, al­most as if they had un­fin­ished busi­ness to take care of. When ‘ Gopi Sir’ is on court, the game is still on.

Pho­to­graph by KRISHNENDU HALDER

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