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