He is well aware of the huge expectations

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

HE scaled the summit of badminton with that momentous triumph in the prestigious All England championship last March. An achievement which made the 27-year-old Pullela Gopi Chand a true celebrity in the nation's sporting history. Well, if most of the Indians desired to see him dominate the sport after that epic feat, they were not to be faulted. The expectations too reached the zenith like his fabulous artistry on the court. Definitely, the millions of fans were clearly tempted by the extraordinary class of this champion shuttler.

K. RAMESH BABU

For someone who scripted that sensational story at the hallowed indoor stadium of Birmingham to trigger off a virtual revolution, Gopi Chand didn't really sustain that level of excellence. A combination of factors - primarily serious injuries and the switch to the seven-point format from the old one of 15 points - certainly saw the genial Hyderabadi touch a new low. Yet, amazingly he continues to hold the No. 4 ranking in the world, no ordinary achievement considering the fact that he had not won a single tournament after the All England. And, it is certainly a sad reflection on the Corporate sector which didn't deem it fit to figure in their endorsement campaigns for Gopi doesn't figure even in a single commercial despite his achievements.

So, when Gopi Chand, duly recovering from the injury just above the right ankle sustained during the training stint in England last December, goes out to defend his title - All England championship, he is aware of the responsibility on his shoulders. "In India, only victories count. Very few acknowledge how tough it is for any shuttler to be consistent now-a-days," he starts off in an exclusive chat as he analyses the last 12 months. "If one makes a comparative study of the top players in badminton in the world, it is obvious that not many have won more than two titles in recent times. There are many upsets in world circuit. This is a fair indication how gruelling it should be out there," he pointed out. "Personally, no doubt, in my case the switch-over to the seven-point game soon after the All England triumph did certainly come at the wrong time. But I will not offer that as an excuse," he asserted.

For the Manager (Lubs) in the Indian Oil Corporation, battling from adversity is nothing knew. He did that in 1994 when the knee injury had him bed-ridden for six months. Thanks to the commitment and sincerity of Dr. Rajagopal of Delhi, Gopi was back on his feet, literally. How does he compare his present state - though not in true terms of trauma but certainly at the agony of missing the action in the middle? "Any break is painful. It is really disturbing that I see so many events pass by. Obviously, when you are not 100 per cent fit, you cannot do anything. In 1994, it was the beginning of my career. Now, the gravity of the injuries may not be of the same level but equally dejecting in terms of missing action when my career is in the middle path," he explained. "But, I am lot more confident and naturally not expecting anything easier," he added. The reason for the injuries? "Well, may be because of the hectic schedule and one should always remember that this is a very demanding sport and not all that easy as fans in the stands might think," Gopi Chand points out.

Even while critics feel that Gopi's game is going downhill in view of his struggle to adapt to the new format, Gopi has an interesting observation: "If you look at my career, I have the longest tenure both in international and national circuit. This is not the case in China where players are ignored after a few niggling injuries. Obviously, there is no point in pondering about what had happened. Let us think about the future. I know that there are great expectations for everyone wants me to keep winning and that is not all easy," he says to another query.

The inevitable question - how does he fancy his chances in All England championship? "Well, I love to be out there 100 per cent fit. Try my best. Take the entire event match by match. Definitely, the fact that the preparations were not adequate will have a bearing when I go out there in the middle. But I will try to be my normal self and hope to change the script. Definitely, I had very little time to prepare in full swing. What I am basically looking for is to see my fitness reach the level it was in December," he explained.

But, then what keeps him motivated? "The many awards I collected including the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award are very important to me for the recognition they brought. These do play a major role on the psychological aspect of one's preparation. They always give you the feeling that you are there in the middle, if not necessarily on the court. Yet, I still consider the All England triumph as the most memorable one and next comes the Thomas Cup experience last year. I would put it this way. The pride of being an Indian is I think the biggest motivating factor in my case," he asserted.

The best part of Gopi Chand's remarkable career is the amount of plain speaking he does and with no airs around. "I know what I have to do, what I can do and how to do. You have to accept certain facts and situations in life and have patience," he says honestly.

Gopi Chand has a sincere appeal to the International Badminton Federation - that it should not wait till its scheduled meeting in July this year to take a final decision on whether to continue the current seven-point game format or to revert to the old 15-point game. "One can't understand the logic behind waiting for so long when every player had almost made up his mind either for or against it. My feeling is that let the IBF once for all decide that a certain format will continue irrespective of the difference of opinion. For this will help the players prepare suitably. I just hope that they won't meddle with the players' game by dilly-dallying on this crucial issue". Gopi Chand also makes it clear that the question is not whether it suits him or not. "I do agree that the current format does lure many sponsors. But the suspense whether it will continue or not should not last too long. It is a totally different game now from what we have learnt. Personally, I feel it doesn't provide the necessary cushion to the strokeplayers. And I somehow don't like the coaches coming after each game in an individual sport like this," he said to another query.

What about the talent available in India? "I strongly believe that gifted players like Chetan Anand and Nikhil should show lot of discipline and hard work over a period of time, say a minimum of five years. Or else, one cannot expect results overnight," was Gopi Chand's observation. Arguably, no one can question his credentials in this regard for he knows what it is all about, those two vital ingredients which made him a champion shuttler and a role model.