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Ruthvika Gadde: The next badminton superstar in the making, honed by that man Gopichand again

Diagnosed with Hepatitis in 2015, the 19-year-old has become the third Indian female singles shuttler in the world top 50.

Ruthvika during her Uber Cup upset

Six months ago, Ruthvika Shivani Gadde, a relatively unknown entity in Indian badminton, came out of nowhere to defeat PV Sindhu at the South Asian Games. This was a classic case of an up-and-coming pupil defeating the best student in class, except that by winning gold, Gadde immediately cemented her status as the third best female shuttler in the country.

Yes, for the fifth time in as many years, Dronacharya awardee Pullela Gopichand has groomed a young and talented Indian shuttler and brought her to the cusp of stardom. Gadde is all set to enter the world top 50, and we can only guess how much higher she will soar from here.

A convincing Russian Open victory yesterday saw the 19-year-old prodigy reinforce her place as the foremost Indian female shuttler with the ability to challenge Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. This is to add to her feats from earlier this year, when she single-handedly pushed India across the Uber Cup quarterfinal stage by defeating the World No. 25 - Thailand's Nitchaon Jindapol.

With little to no international experience, Gadde was touted as the weakest link in India's Uber Cup squad. But boy did she prove her critics wrong!

Her scintillating rallies and smashes mirror the same aggressive style that Pullela her coach was known for. Ranked 113 at the start of 2016, Gadde has climbed 63 places in just six months - highlighting her meteoric growth as an international pro at a very young age.

Things weren't always so bright for her though. At the start of 2016, life took a rather ugly turn for Gadde - by throwing a deadly disease at her.

Comeback from Hepatitis

Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda from Russia, Gadde said, “I don't like talking much about these things, because I just wanted to focus on positives. Last March, my family doctor broke the news to me that I was diagnosed with Hepatitis. During that time I had just begun senior level training with Gopichand Sir, hence it came as a massive surprise.

"My mother is a strict disciplinarian; I attribute all my success, albeit minimal, to her. She was the one who took me to practice every day, made sure I wasn't lazy, basically did all the right things that I needed to do to become a champion. But that was the first time I saw her cry. She put her head on my shoulder and told me to never give up,” Gadde added.

She was bed-ridden for three months, and was unable to play professionally for a year. But after getting the necessary treatment, she was finally medically cleared to play, and her return was one of monumental proportions. Her efforts didn't go unnoticed.

Speaking about her comeback, Gopichand said, “For me personally, raw talent can be substituted with hard work; for someone like Ruthvika, she is probably one of the hardest workers I know. Even when she was diagnosed, she made sure she was at the top of her game. She used sneak into the academy and we had to tell her to go back.

"The one year away from the sport just brought out that aggression, you know; that's how much she really really wanted to win. And she has taken the first step towards the Olympics now," he added.

Hailing from Khammam, a small district in Telangana, Gadde's parents decided to enrol her into badminton coaching at the age of 12. By the time she turned 14, she was already a part of the sub-junior national set-up. It was at the Sub-junior Nationals that Gopichand first noticed Gadde.

Ruthvika with the Russian Open title 

She said, “I won that event, and Gopichand Sir went up to my parents and requested them to enrol me into his academy. He also said he wouldn't take no for an answer. I was 14 then, and ever since I began training there, I realised that I wanted to become a professional badminton player.”

How Gopichand groomed and motivated a rank amateur 

Gopichand's hand in coaching Gadde has seen her overcome her illness with relative ease, but perhaps more importantly, he has helped her regain her lost confidence. She said, “The reason I told you that I didn't want to discuss this particular topic is because it had majorly affected my confidence. But I still remember Gopichand Sir telling me, 'This is the best thing that happened to you, everything happens for a reason and if you trust me, we could be in the Olympics in Tokyo.' I keep thinking of these words; if I'm here today doing anything substantial, it's because of him.”

Reacting to her Russian Open victory, Gopichand said, “It's refreshing to see Ruthvika garner success on the big stage immediately. These are qualities that take time, but both her Uber Cup victory and Russian Open victory have highlighted that the big stage doesn't daunt her. She is only 19, and there is no doubt in my mind that she will be a very strong prospect for Tokyo in 2020.”

Ruthvika after stunning Sindhu to win South Asian Games gold 

Gadde also revealed various facets of Gopichand's coaching style which may not be known to the casual badminton fan. Upon being asked whether he is eccentric with this methods, Gadde said, “I wake up at 6 am every day and go for training; usually Gopichand Sir is there before me with my day planned out, based on my upcoming events. We go through everything before practice, and then rest in the afternoon. Then we start practising again in the evening, with physiotherapy etc.

"I wouldn't say it's eccentric and even if they are, it has won him two Olympic medals, so I'm more than happy to follow. I still remember, two minutes before my Uber Cup match, he came up to me and told me, 'This is your moment; these last two years, you've been waiting and waiting and waiting, finally you have the chance to show everyone out there that you're as good as your compatriots.' That triggered something in me, you know; I mean he just knew what I was thinking, what my state of mind was,” she added.

No financial assistance till date; if I reach top 40, only then will I be considered: Ruthvika

Ever since her comeback, Gadde has made sure that she never loses focus. In the short span of one year, she has already played 15 tournaments (5 domestic, 10 international), putting in some fine performances along the way.

She said, “As a badminton player it's extremely important for me to forget all the victories. Yes, I'm happy that I won, but now (there is the) next tournament, and (I have to) learn more till I break into the top 40 of the world. I cannot expect my parents to keep funding my dream, and the Ministry only helps with regular funding once a player breaks into the top 40. So my next 6-7 months are crucial.

"If I make it into the top 40, I can go for more tournaments, with my parents not worrying about the money. Funding is difficult to come by, and the next year could be my final one of playing these many tournaments,” she went on.

Gadde is presently assisted by GoSports Foundation, but that is the only financial aid she receives. Her struggle to put together money to travel for tournaments also highlights the gulf in monetary rewards between the top shuttlers and the ones on the brink of making it to the top. Gadde added, “I mostly focus on positive things. I really don't let these things enter my mind. My country and parents come first, so (if) in my country this is how I have to do it, I will do it. It really doesn't matter much to me. As long as I believe I can do it, I will keep doing it.”

Now into the world top 50, Gadde's goal is to play higher ranked opponents on a more consistent basis. Her next stop is the Dutch Open, which starts in two days' time - that's hardly enough preparation time. But on the plus side, she heads into this tournament on the back of her best ever finish and also her highest ranking.

After kicking Hepatitis out of her life with so much gusto, Gopichand's newest protege seems to be well on her way to becoming India's Olympic medallist No. 3. Ruthvika Gadde might well become a household name soon; this is just the beginning, and her arrival gives further credence to the idea of India emerging as a global badminton superpower.

The next few years are going to be a thrilling spectacle for the country's badminton fans, to say the least.

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