Gopi Chand: Breaking badminton barriers

India’s first real badminton academy was set up by Prakash Padukone, and P. Gopi Chand’s was the second. Now they are mushrooming.

Gopi Chand with P. V. Sindhu and Sai Praneeth after they won gold and bronze, respectively, at the 2019 BWF World Championships..   -  Special Arrangement

It is an indisputable fact that Pullela Gopi Chand, India’s chief badminton coach, has set a benchmark that is extremely difficult for others to emulate. In a way, by demonstrating his touch of class in his evolution from a player of great repute to a coach — he is only the second Indian after Prakash Padukone to win the All-England Championships — Gopi Chand has taken badminton to a different level and is a source of both pride and envy.

In an exclusive chat, the 45-year-old shares his thoughts on different aspects of the sport and his job, even as he credits a lot of his success to his mother Subbaravama, and this even while not really paying too much attention to his growing kids, P. Gayathri and P. Sai Vishnu, both of whom are already making a mark in age-group tournaments.

How do you look back at your career so far given the backdrop of your success as coach at the highest level?

Well, as a player it was a different kind of era in the ’90s for me. I played my first international in 1992. We used to go to these tournaments just to watch big stars play. Those days we never even thought of reaching the next round.

In fact, I remember even in the All-England, most of us (Indians) wouldn’t even last the first day of the competition as we used to pack up almost the same day. So, things have changed definitely in the last 30 years and for the good.

Now Indians are winning medals at World Championships, Olympics and Super Series tournaments. This is a huge change in Indian badminton now. And I am really happy with this transformation.

How was the transition from a player to a coach?

Gopi Chand’s son Sai Vishnu and daughter Gayathri are both budding shuttlers.   -  V. V. Subrahmanyam

I must say as a player it was a pretty smooth journey. But as a coach, it was obvious that I had to break the barriers. For we never had a system which facilitated quality coaching for different reasons. If you remember the first real badminton academy was set up by Prakash Sir (Padukone). My academy (Gopi Chand Academy at Gachibowli in Hyderabad) was the second big thing to have happened in Indian badminton. Now look at the mushrooming growth of these academies with Hyderabad alone now having about a 100.

But what I must say here is that because of our academy, other sports too have followed suit and now almost every major Olympic discipline has some sort of an academy set up or the other, which I feel is good for the overall improvement of sport.

What exactly was the first target for you when you started coaching and set up the Gopi Chand Academy?

Somehow to win an Olympic medal and I am pleased that Saina (Nehwal) got the first one in the 2012 London Olympics (a bronze). The reason is pretty simple — no one thought or gave the Indians a chance to even think of, leave alone winning, it. That was the biggest driving force for me — to change the contours of Indian badminton. The logic too is pretty simple — what I missed as a player when at my peak I am just trying to ensure that my trainees shouldn’t.

The whole idea was to be a part of a journey which led to the kind of performances which are taken note of at the highest level.

What has been the biggest challenge in coaching?

It has been good so far. There were early hazards in setting up the academy because of legal issues, funding, infrastructure. But I am grateful to God for ensuring that there were people who were always there in a crisis and supported me in a big way. But for these gentlemen — there are quite a few and I obviously cannot name each and every one — it would not have been possible to be in this position now. So, there was always some kind of help from some quarter every time an issue cropped up.

So it was obvious that I had to push myself more as a coach than as a player. As I said earlier, I was more focused as a player despite a lot of handicaps; it was a much smoother journey.

What do you look for as a coach?

I repeat again it is imperative for us to get a system in place which would ensure a continuity to the kind of results we have been producing of late. The biggest challenge now for all of us (involved in badminton) is to identify the best of the juniors and groom them into potential champions. One must remember that the big powers of badminton like China, Indonesia, Malaysia or even Japan now are not producing champions just like that. They don’t come randomly. It is because there has been a lot of planning, meticulous execution and again a system which got the desired support from all quarters including the government.

How difficult is to train champions like Saina or P. V. Sindhu at the same time?

It is tough, definitely. For I have to constantly evolve a coaching pattern which suits their varied style of game, approach and many other factors. It needed a lot of attention, care and concern. Never easy given the fact that they are world-class players and on whom the entire focus is on always. Every move mattered and I am glad that we have been successful so far with Saina setting the trend and Sindhu raising the bar.

Is it not a concern that you don’t really see any other singles player (both in men and women’s sections) who can be rated to reach the levels of the champion players like Saina, Sindhu or a Kidambi Srikanth or Sai Praneeth?

Well, in terms of results, it is obvious that these big names are grabbing the limelight for all the right reasons. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have talent. There is plenty, in fact. But we need to channel it in the right manner to see a second crop of players ready to take over. If you remember, when Saina was dominating the scene a few years ago, who next was the question? And Sindhu provided the answer. So I am really optimistic of a couple of players stepping into the big shoes of these champions soon.

You have achieved almost everything a coach from India can dream of. What are your targets now?

To put it simply, I am coaching because I am enjoying it. I don’t look at my job as something personal, like thinking about what I will get from my job. I am here to produce champions and I will continue to be involved as long as I can. I am happy to create the kind of impact I have done so far. I wish the critics will acknowledge that Gopi as a coach has done something to the sport which can be appreciated (smiles).

What has been the role of the different wings of the government or the corporate sector in giving badminton the kind of image it has now?

I must acknowledge that there has been huge support from the Government of India and the Sports Authority of India, especially in taking care of the top players under different schemes for the last 10 years like the TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme). They are doing a terrific job and can take pride in giving the sport the direction it has now.

What more needs to be done?

Gopi Chand credits a lot of his success to his mother Subbaravamma.   -  V. V. Subrahmanyam

We still need some improvements in the system. Set the house in order to widen the base of the sport across India to see that more and more champions come up. Here, the BAI (Badminton Association of India) has been doing an exceptional job in organising so many tournaments especially in different age groups, which help spot talent and groom it. Still, we need to have a structure that will take care of the next generation of players with all care, concern and planning.

Quite often you seem to cop criticism for different reasons. How do you react to them?

Well, I have been seeing these things for the last 15 years. They come and go. If there is any substance in them (allegations), something would have come out by now for there are so many tiers which are involved in my functioning like the government, SAI, BAI top brass, the big players.

Well, each one has his own very strong viewpoint. But not many look at the overall picture. This is the problem. I was and am mentally prepared for these kinds of challenges, too. To succeed, you need to be ready for brickbats too and not just bouquets.

How difficult is it to be a father and coach to your two badminton-playing children — Gayathri and Sai Vishnu?

Fortunately, there is no conflict of interest (laughs). I rarely spend time with them as the support staff at the academy and Lakshmi (his wife and former national champion) take care of their careers. My role as far as they are concerned is only advisory. I am not the kind to force things on anyone. What destiny deems, it will happen.

Is there any scheme that is close to your heart now?

The Fit India initiative is something which is very close to my heart as I have always believed that physical training is something which needs to be taken to a different level. I wish I had more time for these kinds of programmes.

What is it that you miss the most in your personal life?

Frankly, I must say that things are much better now than in my early days of coaching when I had to be away from family for days when it was really tough.

Given the choice, I would love to spend time with my parents, wife and kids, whom honestly I have not seen much as they grew up with Lakshmi and my sister and brother.

Honestly, I cannot even imagine that I have sacrificed so much over the last few years since I took to coaching.

You have won so many awards — from the Arjuna to the Padma Bhushan, Dronacharya and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna — that there is practically nothing left to win. How important are these awards for you?

I look at them as some sort of a recognition for my accomplishments as a player and then as a coach. But each one meant that extra responsibility driving me to strive even better in whatever I have do to. These awards are in a way a kind of trust reposed in me and I deem it a moral responsibility not to fall short of expectations.

How long are you going to coach?

As long as I continue enjoying it. It is a joy and I don’t look at it as some sort of a job. I’m glad to be a part of some sort of history that someone like a Saina or Sindhu or a Srikanth or a Praneeth script with their deeds. For me, the ultimate joy will be to see my players stand on the medal podium with the national anthem being played.