Pullela Gopichand: The Dronacharya to PV Sindhu's Arjun
Pusarla Venkata Sindhu stormed into the finals of the women’s badminton tournament at the Rio Olympic Games with an outstanding win over the world number six, Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in the semi-final match at the RioCentro Pavilion 4. This meant that the Indian shuttler secured the country’s second medal at the Games as she will look to win the gold when she faces Spain’s Carolina Marin on 19 August 2016.
The credit for Sindhu’s meteoric rise to the world stage and to the glory of a gold medal in Rio does not go to her alone. It is her coach and former Indian badminton player, Pullela Gopichand, who has kept the 21-year old shuttler in great shape and form ahead of the grandest event in Brazil.
PV Sindhu’s parents used to play professional volleyball but their daughter chose to take up badminton as she drew inspiration from the success of Pullela Gopichand, the winner of the 2001 All England Open Badminton which led to Sindhu starting playing badminton at the age of eight.
The shuttler learned the basics of the sport under coach Mehboob Ali at the Indian Railway Institute of Signal Engineering and Telecommunications in Secunderabad. But the turning point of her career came when she finally joined Gopichand’s badminton academy.
The Gopichand academy was the start of something big in India
This was the start of something big in the history of Indian badminton. Gopichand had managed to set up his own academy in Hyderabad in 2008 and initially had only Saina Nehwal as his student but was later joined by the likes of PV Sindhu, Srikanth Kidambi and Parupalli Kashyap. Gopichand was always considered as a player who could never transform into a good coach. But it was his spirit and determination to succeed that led him to become a great coach.
Gopi had once recalled his beginning of life as a coach when he said, “When I started out as a coach, there were many who dissuaded me saying the system will not let you succeed. But I feel it is important to keep pushing. I saw ourselves as world beaters and I wanted to prove the sceptics wrong.” For Gopi, resting on his laurels of having won the All England Championship would have been an easier option but he chose to change how young Indian shuttlers approached the sport.
The 42-year old is a self-taught guru who is considered a tactician in the modern game. He has perhaps transferred this quality to his young players at the academy. Interestingly, Gopichand is also the national coach for India in the sport and most of the criticism that he has faced has probably come from envy rather than introspection.
His belief that the country’s shuttlers can be the world-beaters and can dominate and tame even the Chinese and Japanese with their racquets is something that the nation has needed for a long, long time.
Training hard from the get go
Gopichand would arrive at his training facility at 4am in the morning and train the likes of PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth for three hours. The 42-year old’s resolve to make the nation proud by helping his students win medals at the Olympic Games has been there since he made the choice of being a coach. The coach has literally helped his students in bettering their game every single day of the week, and that can be seen now when both Sindhu and Srikanth have performed well at the Games.
Sindhu’s victory in the quarterfinals against Wang Yihan and then in the semi-finals over Nozomi Okuhara were two great performances from the 21-year old. But it is always hard to please a coach like Gopichand. The coach decided to praise Sindhu but also strictly mentioned that there were flaws in the youngster’s game even after being victorious.
He had told reporters, “It was good but in my book she can do a notch higher. There's of course, some chances of improvement in a couple of areas. She's been inconsistent a few times and squandered leads but I think it's part of her learning experience. She's still young, and has age on her side. I think she's a great fighter with great work ethic.”
But strategy seems to be a crucial part of Gopichand’s coaching. He had talked about Sindhu’s quarterfinal match and it was quite visible how he technically explained the match. He had said, “Sindhu straightway got into a a good retrieving capacity to negate Yan's attack. It was very close call on all the games. She (Yan) changed her gameplan a couple of times and started attacking on Sindhu's forehand then she played counter net a couple of times. In the end, Sindhu backed up well with some solid smashes.”
However, the coach, like all good coaches, praised the shuttler for performing well, “It was really a good match, a spirited performance from the beginning. Both the players fought well. Sindhu stayed calmer and finished off. She showed great attitude.”
Tough training working out for Sindhu
However, Sindhu’s journey to the podium in Rio is not something that took place overnight. It took many years for Gopichand to get the 21-year old prepared to take on the world’s best at a major event. The coach divides the court into different parts to create strategies for Sindhu’s opponents and works on Sindhu's wristwork in order to get that backhand flip right everytime the youngster tries it in a match. These lessons have been put into practice at Rio.
But all of this started when the youngster went to Gopichand’s academy for the first time where he asked Sindhu to shout out in front of the 50-odd shuttlers if she wanted to touch the racket. Like Dronacharya’s tough tasks meant for Arjun in Mahabharata, this was also a first of many which helped in making Sindhu what she is today. The Indian went on to win back-to-back medals at the World Championships in 2013 and 2014.
Gopi’s other achievement included helping Saina win the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics but that was not his only mission. The man’s determination is such that after returning from London, he went back to the training facility and trained his young shuttlers to get better. It is because he wants to make them win for the nation and also wants them to take the next step even if an athlete wins gold.
When Gopi was asked about what it means to him if his wards win a medal, he had said, "More responsibility. It tells me there is a lot of work yet to be done. When someone wins a medal, I tell myself we need to better it next time.”
The screams you hear from the 21-year old when she wins a point are priceless but they have come at a price. Sindhu’s dad, PV Ramana, a former volleyball player himself, recalls, “It was very tough for her because she is a soft person and not very aggressive. Gopi says Indian children grow up in a very protected environment because of which they do not express themselves enough, even when they are in a sports arena. Showing a temperament by screaming a bit and an aggressive body language also helps to intimidate the opponent. In sport, where domination is key, this aspect is important.”
Sindhu had been driven to tears at the end of that lesson but now when she kisses that gold or the silver medal, she will realise that those tears have been worth all the hard work and efforts she has put in.
Whereas, Gopi will continue to say that he “loves what he does.” While we have portrayed Gopichand as Dronacharya and Sindhu as Arjun, it is interesting to note that the former is a Dronacharya award winner and Sindhu has won the Arjuna award. And together these two will hope to finish the Mahabharata in Rio’s Kurukshetra.