The Game Daughters Play

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Badminton is finding an unusual following in Hyderabad. Even daughters of other sports’ veterans are taking to it

I cannot help looking up to her. I ask her how tall she is. “I am 5 feet 11 inches. For a change, that is not the first question that everyone asks me,” PV Sindhu giggles. “People usually ask me why I took to badminton instead of playing volleyball like my parents.” Sixteen-

year-old Sindhu is the daughter of India volleyball players Vijaya and PV Ramana. The latter was captain of the Indian volleyball team and a member of the 1986 Asian Games team that won a bronze.

As an eight-year-old, Sindhu found herself more enamoured of the exploits of her dad’s friend, 2001 All-England badminton champion Pullela Gopichand, on the badminton court. The flight of the shuttle, she found, was almost a work of art compared to the thud of the volleyball. While the initial years on court were more fun than anything else, once she crossed the age of 10, she decided to make the badminton court her workplace. Success at the sub-junior level (two under-

10 national level titles in 2005) ensured the family’s concurrence with her decision. Becoming Gopi’s pupil, though inevitable after he started his own training school, was a long journey. Literally. Between 2006 and 2008, her daily routine involved travelling 120 km to attend his academy (30 km from her home, twice a day). The daily commute was a little too much to bear, so in 2008 she made the academy her home.

The Gopichand Academy trains younger kids too. Half Sindhu’s age is Gayatri, who is daddy’s girl in every sense. Daughter of Gopichand and Lakshmi, who was national badminton singles champion in 1994 and 1995, Gayatri’s much-loved first toy was a badminton racquet. That obsession has persisted, and she now spends a good four-

five hours every day at her dad’s academy in Hyderabad, before and after school. “Yes, I want Gayatri to play the game because I think it is a blessing to play badminton,” says Gopi, “But it is not possible for me or anyone else to push her, it has to come from within.”

In another part of Hyderabad, since May this year, an 11-year-old has been part of Dronacharya award winner SM Arif’s badminton gurukul at Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium. Arif, who has coached both Gopi and Saina Nehwal, knows Yeshaswini has the sporting DNA to make a mark. Daughter of former India hockey captain and triple Olympian Mukesh Kumar and women’s hockey player Nidhi Khullar (member of the India team that won a silver at the 1998 Asiad), Yeshaswini held a hockey stick for a good year or so before switching to the badminton racquet.

And dad, in a sense, was responsible for it. Mukesh played coach to his daughter during a summer vacation camp and now regrets putting so much pressure on the young one that she got blisters on her hands. Mukesh dropped the idea of being a coach to Yeshaswini. After she expressed a desire to emulate her role model, Saina, having watched her win gold at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, Mukesh took her to Arif.

For a country used to Father & Son sports packages, be it Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan or Milkha Singh and Jeev Milkha Singh, or even the Bhupathis and Gavaskars, it’s refreshing to have daughters trying to uphold the fame of their surnames. And the game that has stolen ahead in courting such success is badminton.

While Gayatri’s interest in badminton is understandable—any other game

would’ve been a surprise—Sindhu’s and Yeshaswini’s zest for the game is a comment on the state of sports inspiration these days. Thanks to better facilities and recent successes, badminton now has the power to seduce youngsters. In contrast, Indian hockey and volleyball, with their inglorious uncertainties, are dependent on too many factors beyond one’s control, robbing talent of the ability to grab success despite one’s best efforts.

“I don’t regret that Sindhu did not play the sport that her mother and I played,” says Ramana. Volleyball, he admits, has few takers. And Mukesh does not need to point out the mess India’s national game has been in for some time now.

What these parents have given their kids are sporting chromosomes. They understand what it takes to get right to the top, the hours and hours of hard work every day, the pressures and intricacies of the modern game. These three sets of parents involve themselves in each point scored by their daughters on the badminton court. Mukesh says his parents, by comparison, had no clue during his playing years of his passion for the game.

“I try to give her pep talks during the drive back home. I tell her to concentrate and learn something new every day,” says Mukesh. The hockey couple has decided to let Yeshaswini play for another three years. “If she shows promise, badminton can be her karmabhoomi. Otherwise, it is back to focus on studies,” he adds.

Ditto with Ramana, who ensures Sindhu follows a particular pattern while preparing for a match. “These are techniques that we used as players and know they work,” he says, “The body and mind should have the right mix of excitement and relaxation ahead of a game.”

At eight, Gayatri is the youngest of the lot, but the Gopichand family is keen that she does not squander the opportunity, especially with the world-class facility that her dad has created in Hyderabad. Lakshmi admits she has a dream for her daughter. “She has been playing for one year now,” says the mother, “She played in the Hyderabad district championship in July, where she lost in the semis. What I liked was that she carried herself well. She did not cry when she lost.”

Watching Gayatri play at the academy, however, you realise this is the age she can afford to play simply to enjoy herself. If there are people out there who expect Gayatri to follow in her parents’ footsteps, she is mercifully yet to comprehend the burden of those expectations. In fact, till recently, she wasn’t even aware that Lakshmi played the game too. Her mom, who hung up her professional racquet soon after marrying Gopi in 2002, had to show her photos from old magazines to prove her credentials. Today, it strengthens their bond. “Mummy, you should have jumped like this to hit the shuttle,” was Gayatri’s suggestion on coming across a photograph of a Lakshmi leaping in the air to hit a smash.

Ramana, who works as assistant sports officer in the South Central Railways in Secunderabad, says their life revolves around Sindhu’s badminton, even though she is away from home “for the sake of the country”. June-July 2011 saw Sindhu on a roll. She won her first international title in June in Maldives, followed by the Victor Indonesia International Challenge in July. But the sportsperson in him tells Ramana these are baby steps. Did he celebrate after any of the victories, I ask him. “I told Sindhu we are happy she won. But tomorrow, you have to be back on court, forgetting all this. You have to get on with practice and prepare for the future.”

Given that she is being billed as the next big hope after Saina, I ask Gopi how he compares Saina’s game with Sindhu’s. “Sindhu is more natural,” responds Gopi, “Plus her body type and the fact that her parents are sportspersons play a part.”

And that’s indeed a notable part. Getting up early before the sun peeps out is a discipline that’s almost innate to these sporting families, something that’s passed on to gen-next without much consciousness. Ramana says Sindhu would cry if her parents didn’t wake her up, wanting to indulge her by allowing her a few more hours of sleep on weekends. That discipline, he believes, is now her USP. And helps her lead a badminton-focused life at an age that other girls want teenage fun.

Sindhu, with her height, another gift from her tall parents, would probably have succeeded at ball games too. I ask Sindhu if her long arms and legs give her a big advantage in terms of being able to cover the court more effectively. “Actually, no,” she giggles again. “Sometimes, with my height, it is more difficult to bend to take those drop shots at the net.”

Punnaiah Choudhary, a senior official at the Badminton Association of India, says Andhra Pradesh today has 17,600 active badminton players, more than any other state in the country, and even more than the cricketers in the state. This, according to him, has been achieved just by having two role models. In a few years, it will show. The real ‘Chak De!’ , for all you know, will originate in Hyderabad and happen on the badminton court.