Pullela Gopichand's simply the best!
Pullela Gopichand's quality products and efforts over the years make him the finest ever badminton guru
If coaching one ward to an Olympic or World Championship medal is a fine achievement, what would one call a coach who has trained a bunch of players to win a truckload of international medals and titles? The very best, probably! That's what India's national badminton coach Pullela Gopichand is.
Gopi's students have won 200-plus medals/titles and that is nothing short of mind-blowing. Before going into what makes the 2001 All England champion so successful as a coach-cum-mentor, let me give you an idea of his progress rate. In 2011, when I was writing his book, The World Beneath His Feat, his Hyderabad academy students had won 30 titles abroad, including smaller BWF Challenger and Satellite ones.
Saina at her best
Saina Nehwal had a clutch of titles and Parupalli Kashyap was making waves as well. But today, Saina alone has won 45 medals/titles including medals at the Olympic and World Championship.
PV Sindhu at just 24, has already won the coveted World Championship gold amongst her 43 medals and titles. Kidambi Srikanth has 21, B Sai Praneeth and Kashyap have 12 and 15 respectively.
This is besides the achievements of HS Prannoy, the Verma brothers (Sourabh and Sameer) and others, who have won at the junior level or tournaments in Iran, Maldives, Mauritius, Vietnam, France and Scotland.
So what makes Gopi tick and why is he so successful? For answers, we must understand a bit of his personality and thought process.
During our several interactions for the book, he told me: "Failure is not an option for me. I may lose my match today, but will come back stronger tomorrow because I would have analysed my defeat. There is a solution to each problem." There was no reason to disbelieve him.
He was and is, very big on self-belief. He also told me, "When I first faced the mighty Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans or Malaysians, I was overwhelmed by their speed and power. I realised that I was not prepared to battle them from a physically weaker position. But if I trained harder, I could be on par with them."
Getting fitter and stronger was no rocket science for Gopi. "You have to have that self-belief," he said, adding, "later on as a coach, I told my students not be afraid of any opponent and work hard, hard and hard."
His most significant and often-used line to his students is, "If I could, you can."
While he emphasises that quick thinking and analysis on court have no substitute, he also works on different training and stroke-practice regimes for different players.
His programs are customised for top players: "Saina is not Sindhu, either physically or mentally. Saina is Saina and she has her own requirements; Sindhu has her own requirements. It's the same with Kidambi and Kashyap. I have to approach them from different angles."
With this colossal success, achieved almost single-handedly, it is not wrong to rate Gopi as the best-ever coach in international badminton.
Some pundits may argue that the mighty Li YongBo of China or the legendary Korean Park Joo Bong, who coaches in Japan, are better since their players won more titles and medals continuously. Be that as it may, the Indian scene was handicapped as far as infrastructure was concerned; almost non-existent when Gopi started coaching.
The super powers of the game had huge, modern badminton halls and facilities while Gopi had his own will and self-belief to follow.
The only structured academy functioning at that time was the Prakash Padukone one at the Karnataka Badminton Association courts where the great man taught Gopi the finer points of the game for a couple of years.
The courts were made available to Gopi only for a few hours daily in Bangalore and he had seen much better systems abroad.
24x7 facilities in Hyderabad
For his Hyderabad academy, he wanted two things for which there would be no compromises — firstly, the academy be made available to him 24x7 for all the days of the year and secondly, every facility needed by students to learn and excel must be under one roof at the academy.
Gopi contributed to Saina becoming World No. 2 in 2009 within three to four years of coaching. Li YongBo, Park Joo Bong and a few others at that level had precedence to follow. Gopi had none; he did it on his own.
"Every kid picking up a racquet believes that he/she can be Saina/Sindhu or a Kidambi/Sai Praneeth. They are all willing to work hard and develop that self-belief on the way to glory," said Sindhu at a recent media interaction. There's Gopi to thank for this.
They fear India now
In my book, Gopi's biggest impact is about Indians being feared on the world stage like never before.
While the nation swoons over the achievements of Saina, Sindhu, Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, Kashyap, Prannoy and others, what would be an apt reward for this extraordinary man? He has already been bestowed the Arjuna Award (1999), Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (2001), Padma Shri (2005), Dronacharya Award (2009) and Padma Bhushan (2014).
The criteria for the Bharat Ratna was changed to accommodate sportspersons and Sachin Tendulkar became first recipient from the sports arena.
The criteria simply reads: "Exceptional performance of highest order in any field of human endeavour."
Gopi has achieved enough to deserve this highest honour. And while we wait for his turn, let's call him the Ratna of Bharat.
The writer is a former India player
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