‘We haven’t heard the other side of the story’

Former doubles specialist Sanjay Sharma dwells upon the raging issue wherein Jwala Gutta has been targeting Gopi Chand for the unjust treatment of India’s leading doubles pair. G. Viswanath listens in.

Sanjay Sharma knows Pullela Gopi Chand and Jwala Gutta well enough to comment on their personalities. A doubles specialist (National title winner with Pradeep Gandhe in 1978), a Thomas Cup captain, author, commentator and coach of both the Indian junior and senior teams for five years (1998-2003), Sharma dwells upon the raging issue wherein Jwala Gutta has been targeting Gopi Chand for the unjust treatment of India’s leading doubles pair. Sharma is the author of Gopi Chand’s authorised biography The World Beneath His Feat.

Excerpts from the interview conducted a couple of days after Ashwini Ponnappa endorsed Jwala’s observations.

Question: Can you figure out the reason for Jwala Gutta’s broadside against Pullela Gopi Chand? This has been going on for some years now.

Answer: The unpleasant issue between Jwala and Gopi has been going on for many years. I am unable to understand why Gopi is being singled out by her. As far as I can understand, Gopi is not the type of person to carry a personal grudge. He has done extraordinarily well as a player and national coach; I don’t know if any other coach has contributed like he has done. He must be having his own limitations and also pressure at times. Having known him, I do not see a reason why he will have a personal angle against anybody. He comes out as a clear and level-headed person.

Jwala has alleged conflict of interest, with Gopi Chand wearing several hats... running an academy, being the national coach, selector and all that?

Gopi Chand is a top-grade coach; if he’s not the India coach, a foreigner will grab that position. When I was the national coach (1998-2003), I felt that I should be part of the selection committee, because the national coach knows the type of player someone is, his/her fitness and also the performance levels. So, with the national coach being in the thick of it, he should be part of the selection committee.

With regard to his academy (in Hyderabad), it’s a place where the national camps are being held. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) is aware of it. I don’t know why anyone should doubt his integrity, unless there is a specific instance where he has, sort of, gone over the line and found out to be biased towards a player. This has not come out in the open until now.

Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopi Chand — both wonderful people, have been running excellent academies. Do you think they should be above suspicion of being prejudiced and biased?

I would think so. Prakash is a gentleman. He will not take a wrong step against any player. He stays away from it (politics in sport) and that’s why he’s not got back into the BAI after one instance some years ago. Gopi Chand is an all-England winner, extraordinary player and a great coach. Look at all the other sports where people want foreign coaches; badminton is a sport which has given India so much and Gopi is largely responsible for this. Tell me, which other sport has seven or eight Indian singles players in the top 50 and two girls in the top 10 in World rankings? And virtually everyone has come from his academy; even Saina (Nehwal) has been with his academy for most part of her career. Now she is training with Vimal Kumar, an extremely nice person and doing a very good job.

Gopi has proved that India needs local coaches to train our players. There are certain emotions and ethos involved in our players. For Gopi it’s a 24x7 job, not a 9 to 5 job. I feel that Gopi will not take any wrong step for Indian badminton. That’s my personal observation.

Do you think someone should step in and sort out matters? Or is it beyond the situation wherein no one wants to talk to Jwala?

I think better sense should prevail. The BAI knows about the issue, its President Akhilesh Das Gupta has helped them a lot. Which are the tournaments they (Jwala and Ashwini) have not played? Gopi correctly said they would have played around 150-200 tournaments in the last 12 years. So the BAI and the national coach have indeed backed them.

And also the IBL incident involving Jwala should not have happened.

The IBL is a product of the BAI and the players should respect that. There has been a sea change in the facilities the BAI has been providing to the players in the last three-four years. There is no doubt that budding players in India can look at badminton as a career. There is so much money and there have been instances of the BAI announcing prize money of Rs. 5, 10 and 20 lakh for players doing well. If there is a misunderstanding, it has to be sorted out. Maybe the two should sit across the table and settle things than wash dirty linen in public.

Gopi has preferred to remain silent.

He’s a person who doesn’t speak much, in any case. That was a major problem, when I was working on his biography. It’s difficult to make him speak and open up. He’s an introvert. He has to be pushed to speak; but I don’t think the issue has come to that level so far. Gopi would not harm any individual — player or coach.