PHOTOS: Pullela Gopichand returns to court for exhibition match in Mumbai
Pullela Gopichand has been the man behind India’s rising stature in world badminton. The chief national coach of the country has mentored the likes of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Srikanth Kidambi, HS Prannoy, Sai Praneeth to countless titles at the highest level of the sport that includes Olympic and World Championships medals.
He has watched from the sidelines as his wards competed with the very best in the world. He has exhorted them and pushed them to the higher echelons, celebrated with them when they have brought laurels.
But on Saturday, the badminton fandom got to see a different Gopichand. After announcing his retirement from playing in 2003, the former All England champion returned to the court much to the delight of the country’s badminton aficionados.
The 43-year-old and a young shuttler faced Gopi's old rival, Peter Gade and another youngster in an exhibition doubles match that was a part of the India leg of The Legends’ Vision World Tour. Gade along with Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, Taufik Hidayat, and Lee Yong Dae had come to Mumbai in an attempt to promote the sport globally. The first leg of this unique world tour was held in Japan in September and the final leg will be held in Paris next month.
Gopichand and Gade had faced off on the BWF Tour four times with the Dane having a 3-1 edge in their head-to-head record. But it was at the 2001 All England Championships semi-finals where the Indian notched up his solitary win over the former World No. 1 en route to the most significant title of his playing career.
With the crowd at the NSCI Dome cheering vociferously for the ‘Dronacharya’ of Indian badminton on Saturday, Gopichand displayed all the finesse and guile that took him to the World No. 5 ranking in 2001. It was ultimately the Dane and his partner who emerged victorious in this battle of old rivals.
The result did not matter. The joy of seeing Gopichand weave his magic on the court again surpassed everything else.
Surely, this was an occasion to cherish for the innumerable badminton fans who had gathered in the arena. For Gopi’s fans, who followed his entire playing career earnestly, this was a nostalgic moment. And for those who have grown up seeing the likes of Saina and Sindhu dominating the court, this was a new experience and one they would like to treasure for a long time.