Monday, December 14, 2009

Champion player, champion coach

(Also in the Gamechangers of 2009 section of the December issue of Man's World)
Pullela Gopichand made his name as only the second Indian after Prakash Padukone to win the All-England Open badminton championships. That was in 2001. Eight years down, he is India’s number one badminton hope again — this time, as The Coach. Coach to Saina Nehwal, possibly India’s best sportsperson at the moment; coach also to the Indian national team. And to Jwala Gutta and Valiyaveetil Diju, who became the first Indian pair to win a Grand Prix mixed doubles title.

Gopi is also a thinking man. When you ask him what the one issue closest to his heart is, he theorises on the link between poverty and sport, between fitness and education. “We have a huge population, but we are woefully behind in education. The uneducated are poor. The rich, who are educated, suffer from all sorts of lifestyle diseases. The problem is lack of physical activity. Ask them, have they walked even a kilometre in the last two years? Poverty eradication is the biggest issue for our country. I can’t solve that. So I am trying to work on making people fitter, healthier,” he says.

So, along with managing the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, he also runs a foundation that organises 10-km marathons across the country. Importantly, he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. Gopi once refused to endorse a cola company because, well, he didn’t want to endorse a product that is ‘anti-fitness’.

Oddly enough for a man so much in the news, all of this isn’t common knowledge. But it’s important to know this side to Gopi, if we are to understand that Gopi is not our everyday coach. He engages with his wards on a deeper level. He explains, “I can’t tell Saina what she should endorse and what she shouldn’t. I can’t push her in the direction I think is right. But I do try to explain to my ‘kids’ what’s right and what’s wrong.” Does everybody else have it, though? Because these days, not all of those kids are getting coach-time to their heart’s content. “I coach a lot of kids but nowadays Saina obviously takes up most of my time. Apart from travelling with her, we train together for four hours every day when she is in Hyderabad. Plus there are other endorsement-related commitments with her,” Gopi says.

Gopi, 36, is comfortable in the world of competitive sport. Saina is 19. Still learning the ropes, trying to figure things out, so the role of the coach goes a bit beyond just working out the backhands and forehands. “I’ve known Saina since she was 13 or so,” Gopi says. “I guess I am a bit of a father figure. I am also a bit of a friend. A mentor. A bit of everything.” Let’s talk a bit more about Saina, shall we? Gopi is game because he is in the centre of things right now mainly because of Saina’s super performances through the last year and a half. “She’s brilliant. Remember, she has many years ahead of her. Some things will come only with experience. Some of her weaknesses she has ironed out already. Give her another year, and she would have gotten even stronger.”

In a sense, all coaches wait for someone like a Saina Nehwal, don’t they? But does the discovery of someone like a Saina make the job that much simpler? “When we started the academy, a bunch of players applied, and we took on all of them. Importantly, we got a number of kids who were talented. Indians are naturals at badminton, and if you get two talented kids out of 20, your job becomes easy. When you get a Saina, it’s even better.” For Saina too, this is as good as it gets. After all, she began training under one of the best shuttlers in the country. Someone who has seen the way international sport works and knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Had it not been for a series of injuries during his prime, Gopi would have been at the top of the game in his time.

For Saina and Gopi, things worked out perfectly. But do the other youngsters at the Academy feel left out somewhat? For once, Gopi, who took over as coach of the national team in 2006, wavers a bit before responding: “We do have a good group of coaches at the Academy. There are a couple of good Indonesian coaches with the national team as well. So it’s not as if the kids or the senior team members are ignored at any stage.” Plus, Gopi does spend a lot of time with the kids as well as the pros when in the country. And that’s evident in Gutta and Diju’s exploits too — Gutta credits Gopi with improving her game in recent times, despite having boycotted the national camp in 2008 ahead of the Sudirman Cup when Gopi refused to allow players to participate in random Open events. It helped that they patched up, because Gutta and Diju won their first Grand Prix title in Taiwan in August this year. A first for Indian badminton, like Saina’s Super Series win in Jakarta.

But is this because Gopi is a super coach or because he has gotten lucky with a batch of talented players? Possibly, the former. For some of us who have watched Gopi from close quarters, spotting his coaching character traits isn’t tough. You’ll have coaches who want students to become mirror images of themselves. And there are others, who let kids have their own identities. Gopi appears versatile enough to belong to the latter category. “I realise not everyone can do what I can do. I also realise there are things some of them can do, that I couldn’t. I shouldn’t push my style on the kids,” says Gopi. He doesn’t either. For him, it’s — to borrow a Harry Potter usage — ‘constant vigilance’ more than anything else. And, importantly, while trying to improve his ‘kids’, he does try to improve himself. “I know I am a bit stubborn at times. But I am working on it.”

Yet another first is the number of Indians in the Top 20 of the senior categories in world badminton right now. Apart from Saina, the Badminton World Federation puts Chetan Anand at number 17 in men’s singles, the Rupesh Kumar-Sanave Thomas combine at number 19 in men’s doubles, and the Gutta-Diju combine at number seven in mixed doubles.

To end, though, a question is necessary. How do we feel about Gopi prioritising Saina above everyone else? Do we criticise him, or are we going to back him on this one? Difficult to answer, and maybe Gopi isn’t sure either. Is there a chance we would have had a group of world-class players if Gopi were to divide his attention? Who knows? As it stands, we are sure Saina is going to get closer and closer to the top with each passing day. That’s not such a bad deal, is it?”