The glory of PV Sindhu in Rio highlights the story of a super coach living his dreams through his students
ON THE MORNING of August 22, as Hyderabad toasted its newest hero, 21-year-old Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, who had pulled off a heist at the biggest event in international sport before losing to firebrand Spaniard Carolina Marin in the badminton women’s singles finals, journalists and TV news crews were sweating it out in the sun. The day seemed just as long as the final game against a stronger, wilier Marin, prone to Sharapovian bouts of screaming. We had arrived early at the Haj Terminal of the Hyderabad International Airport and waited alongside a posse of policemen, political representatives, athletes and a blue, open-deck BEST bus from Mumbai. At the exit, the ‘Haj Mubarak’ banner was dwarfed by bigger boards welcoming home the freshly-crowned Olympic silver medallist and the coach with the Midas touch, Pullela Gopichand, after their successful pilgrimage to Rio. In a throwback to 2012, when he and his protégé Saina Nehwal brought home a bronze from the London Olympics and were driven around in style on a horse-drawn carriage, Gopichand was once again basking in a victory that he never managed to claim for himself during his shuttling career. Today, however, even as the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh vied to bestow a larger cash reward on Sindhu, it was as much her moment as it was Gopichand’s, a coach who has had shuttling stars coming out of his ears. In a country starved of sporting icons other than cricketers, the putative guru of prospective Olympians is arguably a bigger star than the athletes he has so successfully choreographed. This, then, is the story of a man living his dream through his students.
The motorcade made its way to Gachibowli Stadium for a slipshod reception hosted by the Government of Telangana, to which thousands of schoolchildren, until then oblivious to the existence of a sportswoman named Sindhu, had been brought by the busload, ostensibly so they could draw inspiration from her. Many of them will never play a sport, but now they waved tricolour balloons to the beat of ‘Chak De India’ on endless loop. And then the politicians claimed Sindhu as the golden daughter of Telugu land, at which point I slipped away from this jamboree, to a place where it would be easier to take a step back and rewind to the beginning of competitive badminton in Hyderabad.
The Lal Bahadur Shastri Indoor Badminton Stadium in Hyderabad is veiled in a strange half-light. The worn wood courts, some covered with green mats, shine dully, as though reflecting the dreamy silence of the afternoon. I imagine a 14-year-old Gopichand gathering from these courts old, battered shuttles from seniors’ matches to practise with, dreaming of playing for India some day. Through the 1990s and the early 2000s, LB Stadium, or Fateh Maidan as it was known, was the mecca for a generation of badminton players trying to upset the Chinese and Indonesian supremacy that prevailed in the sport. Gopichand was one among them—and perhaps the most ambitious. As senior players, tired from training all morning, sat around drinking tea at a cafe outside, a mug of milk was ordered in jest for Gopichand, who stayed off caffeine and anything that could be remotely detrimental to his fitness. Jump-smashing his way through many a match, the youngster eschewed the defensive stroke play advised by Indian coaches at the time. Multiple injuries blighted his career, perhaps because he always trained harder than everyone else, but his remarkable resilience made him bounce back time and again, until he became only the second Indian player in history to win the All England Open Badminton singles in 2001, breaking the long drought since Prakash Padukone’s unprecedented victory in 1980.
Mohammad Arif, a soft-spoken man with a ready smile, coached Gopichand at Fateh Maidan for nearly a decade. “He was the first attacking player I trained,” says Arif, who, at 72, is yet to hang up his gloves. “He got angry if you told him he couldn’t beat the Chinese,” he says, in a white kurta-pyjama at his residence in an old, byzantine part of Hyderabad. “He was so diligent that in a practice session of 500 drop shots, he would be upset if a few went into the net.” Arif could not always manage to get enough shuttles for Gopi to practise his smashes with, so he helped him get exposure to the international circuit by putting him in a camp with Chinese coach Xiao Ming in 1991 and later facilitating his stint in the German Bundesliga. “After training with the Chinese coach, who paid special attention to Gopi, for 45 days or so, there was a marked improvement in his game,” says Vijay Raghvan, his one-time doubles partner. Indian badminton was finally getting serious, and Gopichand was among the first beneficiaries. “The Xiao Ming effect meant that we all started spending more time on court, playing 20-minute practice rallies instead of five-minute ones,” Raghvan says. He was playing doubles alongside Gopichand at the National Games in Pune in January 1994 when the latter suffered his worst injury: a career-threatening ligament and meniscus tear, which happened when the two players collided, landing on top of each other. “Post surgery, he was slow to recover but came back stronger than ever. He was a changed man after that episode. No one wanted to play doubles with him anymore and he was deeply hurt by the taunts. He would train harder and make an explosive comeback, beating everyone who ever wrote him off,” says Manoj Kumar, a national player a few years senior to Gopichand who was one of his early inspirations.
THE REASON GOPICHAND is hailed as a super coach is that he is able to transfer his sense of discipline and dedication to the sport to his players. Twenty years ago, he had been eyeing a long-denied medal in the Nationals. He was just recovering from a second knee surgery but losing wasn’t an option for someone who had already lost months to rehab. So win he did, beating the best in the country, and defending the title for five years, until 2001. These were his best years, when he was in incredible form, conquering many a top-seeded player, including the great Lin Dan, Olympic champions Alan Budikusuma, Poul-Erik Høyer Larsen, Ji Xinpeng, and, the man who had interrupted his Olympic dream in Sydney in 2000, Indonesian player H Hendrawan. It was a magical era that saw Gopichand explore the breadth of his ability, believing that he could beat anyone, even the Chinese, on a good day. The Olympic debacle, he wanted the world to know, was an aberration.
Sindhu’s performance in Rio seems to mirror a similar confidence. At 18, Sindhu had won a bronze at the World Championships in Guangzhou, becoming the first Indian women’s singles player to do so. A year later, she repeated the feat in Copenhagen, and remains the only Indian to have won two World Championships medals. But she has not been the most consistent. In fact, this year would have been a disaster for Sindhu were it not for the Malaysia Masters Grand Prix gold in January and, of course, her historic Olympic silver. In the interim, however, there were many worrying upsets. First she suffered a loss at the hands of Thailand’s Nithaon Jindapol in the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold tournament in Lucknow in January. The following month, she lost to a young Ruthvika Shivani in the South Asian Games. Then again in April, Sindhu bowed out of the India Open Super Series, losing to Korean Bae Yeon Ju in the quarterfinals. As late as June 2016, she seemed in questionable form, losing in the opening round of the Australian Open Super Series tournament in Sydney. How could this girl shoulder the responsibility of representing India in the Olympics? Gopichand’s faith in her paid off, though, as she overcame formidable opposition in the form of Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying, World No. 2 from China Wang Yihan and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara. The semi-final saw her play an aggressive game of half-smashes, long rallies and drops to beat the shorter Okuhara in straight sets. Gopichand was always by her side, the Krishna to an oft-dithering Arjuna, mouthing such reassurances as “She has no weapons”. “Frankly, this was not expected. This is the best she has ever played,” says Raghvan. Everyone seems to agree that Sindhu was a dark horse, capable of brilliance thanks to her stature and her power play, but lacking in mental fortitude, experience and technical nuance.
How did Gopichand get her to peak at the right time? Former national champion Aparna Popat says the coach hit upon a delicate balance. “Success in sport is also a function of knowing what to sacrifice. For example, Srikanth Kidambi didn’t have enough time to prepare for the Olympics. He played over 20 tournaments in 2015, leaving him with no time to build his strength,” she says. The other big reason, says Popat, was Gopi’s unfailing guidance. “So many times in my career, I felt like I missed out on a medal because of the lack of a second pair of eyes to analyse what was going wrong. As a player, you often don’t get the entire jigsaw puzzle and having a coach make decisions for you boosts your confidence,” she says. Popat trained with Gopichand at Prakash Padukone’s academy in Bangalore and was his teammate at the Sydney Olympics. I ask her how Gopichand has been able to extract more results from Sindhu than from Saina Nehwal, who is a more experienced and sophisticated player. Nehwal quit Gopichand’s academy in a huff in 2014, alleging she wasn’t getting enough attention from him, and went on to quickly move up in the rankings under Vimal Kumar’s tutelage in Bangalore. “I think of it this way. If there hadn’t been a Saina, there may not have been a Sindhu,” says Popat. “Coaching is like baking a cake. Once you know the formula, you stop looking at the recipe book. Gopi is more confident now, after training so many players. He is employing versatile tools and knows what it takes to build a champion.”
The staff at Gopichand’s academy say he worked just as hard as Sindhu at improving her defence, net play and overall fitness. She had sustained a hairline fracture in her ankle in 2014, which went undiagnosed for months. As a result, her Achilles tendon was weakened, but the coach, an infamous disciplinarian, wouldn’t let her rest. “At times when she could not play, Gopi sir would have her work on her upper body,” says Anushree Menon, one of three Sports Authority of India-appointed female physiotherapists at the Pullela Gopichand Nimmagadda Foundation Badminton Academy in Gachibowli. “Ahead of the Olympics, she would be here at 4 am. Besides her regular workouts and court practice, she started running too. She got even leaner and darker.” Sindhu, it would seem, is a player in Gopichand’s mould—gritty, attacking and anxious to overcome her physical limits. Both also share a deep bond with their parents, who have made sacrifices that shaped them as human beings, if not as players: if Gopichand’s mother Subbaravamma sold her jewellery to buy equipment for him—she is still the biggest force behind the smooth day-to-day functioning of his academy—Sindhu’s mother quit her government job and her father stayed home for months ahead of her Olympic challenge. But the similarities between coach and student may well end here.
IN THE VICINITY of eminent campuses such as those of Infosys and the Indian School of Business, the academy, too, has become an institution to reckon with. Four of the eight courts are occupied when I visit, each with three-to-four players training as if their lives depend on it. The aroma of fried eggs wafts in from the kitchen above. The courts are arranged like arenas and everything else overlooks them, including the player’s rooms on the first and second floors and the dining area. Indeed, once on court, players must fight to survive. “Chal chal chal,” urges a young, mesomorphic coach, throwing bird after bird across the net at a petite girl who scrambles to retrieve them in time, covering every inch of the court in the process. Indonesian coach Yusuf Jauhari, a SAI resource who came to the academy in December 2015, walks the perimeter of each court, watching players, correcting posture and grip, occasionally nodding approvingly at a screamer that hits the baseline. The game requires superhuman agility, reflexes and stamina, all of which come only with relentless practice. The slightest change in the angle of your paddle, or your grip, or how close to your body you make contact with the bird, can alter the course of the shot, making it go wide or, worse, weak. The best players set up their finishing shots several rounds ahead, and devise the most unreadable strategies. This is where knowing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and playing a well-thought-out game become important.
As a player and then as coach, Gopichand has always been a good strategist. He can be unwittingly prophetic, says Manjusha Pawangadkar-Kanwar, a friend and contemporary of Gopichand’s. “When we played, we wished there was someone who could tell us exactly what to do. This is what prompted Gopi to turn coach,” she says. The unforeseen loss at the Sydney Olympics, where he just couldn’t manage to get his game on, possibly because of a sore body and lack of physiotherapy, seems to have scarred Gopichand, who now devotes all his time to making sure emerging players can fix their mistakes and get better at their game. Paradoxically, Gopichand was a rebellious player, defiant of his coaches and too impatient to be able to build up a long rally before scoring a point. In a sense, he was a player ahead of his time, better suited to the faster game played under the new 21 rally point scoring system. After a few years at Padukone’s academy, Gopichand felt encumbered by the former badminton great’s perfectionist style and left to find his own. “It was a shock to me when he left to train with SAI coach Ganguly Prasad. It was the equivalent of leaving the city to live in a village,” says Aparna Popat. Gopichand won the All England Championship while training under Prasad, but he played on his own terms, taking charge of strategy and fitness, until further injuries forced him into retirement post-2003. Other coaches believe Gopichand would do well to put himself in a senior player’s shoes and cut his students some slack instead of micromanaging them. “When a good player reaches a certain level of maturity, he or she becomes a personality and has to be handled a lot more delicately,” says Arif, referring to Gopichand’s fallout with players like Jwala Gutta and Saina Nehwal. At the time of going to press, reports were trickling in of Parupalli Kashyap quitting his academy, apparently disappointed with his progress.
A young Sindhu is not as combative as Gopichand the player was, at least not mentally. But together, they make a winning team, feeding off each other’s energy. “Sindhu’s problem was that she was emotional and could not always keep a steady mind. Somehow, Gopi worked on this, instilling confidence in her. She was a completely new person at the Olympics,” notes Jauhari. Gopichand, too, was emotional about his game, say his friends; but while he cried his heart out after every loss, he would emerge from it stronger.
In the final match against Marin, when Sindhu was so obviously outclassed and forced to dig deep into her arsenal, she maintained her cool for the most part, refusing to wilt under pressure. Such tenacity is the mark of a true champion and it may well be Gopichand’s secret ingredient.