The joy of having produced a GOPI CHAND

IT may sound incredible, but it really happened. Former chief national badminton coach, Dronacharya S. M. Arif, was one day getting ready for his regular early morning coaching stint at the Fateh Maidan Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

IT may sound incredible, but it really happened. Former chief national badminton coach, Dronacharya S. M. Arif, was one day getting ready for his regular early morning coaching stint at the Fateh Maidan Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad. It was his daily routine, which he had performed without a break for years together. On the day in question, as has been the practice for nearly three decades, Arif was all set to leave his residence, which is hemmed in by a cluster of old-fashioned Nizami houses in the Darul-ul-Shifa area of Hyderabad near the famous Salarjung Museum. But, when his wife spotted him leaving the house at exactly the time he left home for work, she was extremely startled. The reason was that Arif had forgotten that he had retired from the Sports Authority of India as the badminton coach and that he was no longer required to go through his daily routine. Having been on the job for close to three decades in a career marked by unflinching commitment and intense desire, Arif could perhaps be excused for this one wrong step.

"I sincerely believe that for any coach, the caring touch of the trainees is the ultimate gift," says Arif.-K. RAMESH BABU

He was a coach who had a unique record of producing more national champions, in different categories, than any Indian coach in any discipline. How does he feel about life after retiring? "Definitely, I had a tough time in realising that my days as a coach were over," he said. "You know it is not that easy to be away from a place where you have put in your heart and soul."

Arif, who was a major source of influence in Andhra Pradesh badminton circles, was also a force to reckon with on the national circuit. His approach knew no barriers and his trainees came from all ages and all strata of society. What really fascinates him in life? "I will be lying if I don't say how much I enjoyed my job. It was an opportunity that does not come everybody's way. The flight of the shuttle in the air is still one of the most captivating sights for me."

Did he ever get bored, doing the same thing day in and day out? "I fully agree that there can be a tendency to get disinterested, if not bored, in doing the same job daily. But, the reason why I enjoyed my stint was that almost every day I tried to do something different, if not special. For instance, one day I focussed only on the racket grip of the young kids in the age group of six to eight years. The next day, I switched my interest to the juniors and then to the seniors. But essentially, I ensured that during a month's span whoever I trained was better off and learnt the finer aspects of the game," Arif explains.

Was there any moment during his long career when he felt he was in the wrong place and could have been more successful in any other walk of life? "Life is full of ups and downs. Fortunately, there were very few occasions when I felt that I was heading the wrong way. Sometimes, the apathy of officials did dampen my spirits. There were days when we did not have adequate number of shuttles to train with. Those were the times when I thought for a while — why should I slog it out when the people who matter in governing the sport are not interested?" he says.

What is it that really saddened him on the court? "The sight of a player not giving 100 per cent every time. I fully concur with the spirit of sport — winning is not all that matters. But watching a player lose without a fight used to hurt me," says Arif.

Giving technical tips was not the sole responsibility of Arif. "Unlike other big sports, we never had a psychologist," he says. "So I had to double up as one. I tried to talk to each player and make him feel more comfortable. My primary objective was to instil self-belief in the player. Nothing else can change the outlook of a player."

Producing champions was almost child's play for "Arif Sir", as he is popularly known in badminton circles. And, who are the players who have impressed him with their attitude? "Without any hesitation, it is Gopi. (2001 All England champion Pullela Gopi Chand). He was really special for me. I can confidently state that there are at least a couple of players who are more talented than him. But they lack his discipline. Sport is all about trying to excel not just with skills but also with a professional approach. There are many things that have a cumulative effect. For instance, Gopi was always there on the court at least one hour before a match, doing stretching and warm-up exercises. This is a regular feature even now. Every player has to get a feel of the court and the crowd and attune his mind for the task ahead. And more importantly, they should stick to the minimum norms of physical conditioning even when they are not playing."

The President, A. P. S. Abdul Kalam, presenting the Padma Shri award to Pullela Gopi Chand. Coach Arif thinks very highly of Gopi Chand.-SANDEEP SAXENA

In fact, one of Arif's priced possessions is the gift given by Gopi Chand and other players at the time of his retirement — a brand new car. "It was one of the most memorable evenings. Their love and affection were almost palpable. Whenever I look back to analyse what I have gained from the sport, this moment comes back to me and gives me immense pleasure. I sincerely believe that for any coach, the caring touch of the trainees is the ultimate gift. And, I had that in abundance from one and all. My relationship with the trainees was personal. I never looked at my assignment as a paid job. One has to look beyond that domain or else one can't enjoy it," says Arif.

For someone who had seen the highs and lows of Indian badminton including Prakash Padukone's dream run winning the Edmonton Commonwealth Games gold, the All England Championship and the World Cup title and then Gopi Chand's magnificent triumph in the hallowed courts of Birmingham, Arif feels disappointed that the second string of players are not playing to their potential. "They seem to be getting into a mental block in most of the events abroad. To get over this, they have to play with more determination and aim big," he says.

What has been the defining moment in his career? "Two significant events stand out. One was Gopi's All England triumph and the second was the Dronacharya Award that I won. I strongly believe that these two events indirectly reflect my commitment for so many years," he says. When down in spirits, with whom does he share his feelings? "Vemuri Sudhakar (IBF referee from Hyderabad) is one of the first names that strike me. We have a long-standing friendship. And there are a couple of family members besides my wife who have stood by me in every crisis and also shared the moments of joy."

How special is Gopi Chand for him? "He is very special," says Arif. "I have seen him grow from a young boy into a champion shuttler. The evolution of his skills through sheer hard work and sincerity is something that I narrate to many budding players. And from a personal point of view, the Dronacharya award was also very special. It came when I was contemplating to quit the scene. That was the phase when I was made to feel unwanted in the new scheme of things. But, by God's grace, that Award spurred me to continue till my actual date of retirement," recalls the proud coach.

If he were not a badminton coach what would he have been? "I just cannot think of life without badminton," says Arif emotionally. His achievements have a special place in the world of coaching, especially in badminton.