Sport

THE GOPICHAND FACTORY

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How one badminton academy in Hyderabad is producing the who’s who of Indian badminton—players like PV Sindhu, who just won the Macau Open, and Kidambi Srikanth who defeated a five-time world champion
It’s 4.30 in the morning and former badminton player and now coach Pullela Gopichand is standing atop a large wooden box, wearing a bright blue shirt and black shorts, carrying a badminton racket in one hand and multiple shuttlecocks put together in the other. Facing him across the net is a young girl, no older than 13. Gopichand, his height made more imposing by the box, delivers shuttlecock after shuttlecock, each one aimed at a different part of the court, on their way like bullets from a machine gun before the girl has even completed her previous stroke. But she does not give up when she misses or hits the net. She does not even flinch when a shuttlecock hits her. With every fault the velocity of the birdies increases. Beside the court, two young girls collect and string the shuttlecocks that fall to the ground. A sweeper with a large broom aids them in the task. Soon it will be their turn to face the firing line.

The rest of Hyderabad is still enveloped in darkness, but here in this large hall with eight badminton courts at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, one can hear the overwhelming whiz of birdies and the skid of shoes on court. On each court, there’s something happening. Either it is one against two, or a female player against a male one, or a young kid—some so small that they don’t even need to bend their knees or arch their backs when walking under a net—against a more senior player. But you hardly hear a sound or a groan from anyone. The sessions are so intense that every ten minutes or so, extremely fit players collapse on their haunches, each one reduced to a panting, sweating mess. On the other side of the glass that separates the hall from the unlit academy office, the hopeful faces of young parents are visible.

This goes on for around two hours. As another batch of players takes their place, those from the earlier group disperse for breakfast and sleep, but they have to be back on court in another few hours. This routine of intense training sessions followed by breaks for short naps goes on throughout the day.

Vijaydeep Singh, a large man dressed in a bright red shirt and black trousers, who is a national coach for doubles and has been stationed at the academy for several years, stretches his large hands as he explains. “This is a factory,” he says. He closes his hands into fists and draws them close to him for emphasis. “And we are in the process of manufacturing A1 badminton players.”

In a sport blighted by apathy and neglect in India—whose crowning glory in public consciousness perhaps came when a Bollywood actor, Jeetendra, dressed completely in white (what else), performed the impossible feat of dancing while playing badminton—the careers of three players have however shone most brightly—those of Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand and Saina Nehwal. Padukone rose to the rank of No 1 and became the first Indian player to win the prestigious All England Open Badminton Championships in 1980. Gopichand repeated that feat when he won the title 21 years later. Nehwal, once ranked as high as No 2 in the world, became India’s only Olympics medal winner in the sport two years ago. But in the age of Nehwal, there are others as well. There is PV Sindhu, who at 19 is already being compared to her, and Kidambi Srikanth, just 21, who recently defeated Lin Dan, widely considered the greatest badminton player in the history of the game, at the China Open; Parupalli Kashyap, Gurusai Dutt and B Sai Praneeth. Each one of the players is as distinct in their skill sets as in their personalities. Yet all of them—in fact almost anyone and everyone of some consequence in Indian badminton today—have one thing in common. They have all been manufactured at the factory of Gopichand.

How does one academy produce so many top players? How do these players, in a sport whose measure of national interest is only comparable to the monumental neglect it suffers, compete with and on their day defeat the likes of those from China, which churns out world-class players on an industrial scale?

The idea of an academy where he could attempt to produce world-beaters occurred to Gopichand at the moment of his greatest triumph. He was travelling with his mother, Subbaravamma Bose, in a taxi in Delhi, on their way from the airport where he had arrived hours earlier with the All England Open title. “Instead of being happy, he seemed disappointed,” Bose recalls. “He told me, ‘It should not have taken this long’.” Gopichand had by then suffered several career-threatening knee injuries, and at the age of 27, was at the fag end of his career. Gopichand says, “With proper coaching and guidance, I could have achieved more. So I wanted to ensure that I could provide what I lacked to future players.”

After the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium was established, Gopichand began training anyone who showed interest in the sport. This was in 2004. A few months later, the then Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, allocated five acres of land to Gopichand to build an academy. Four years later, after raising just enough money by mortgaging his house and with the contribution of a distant relative and industrialist, Nimmagadda Prasad, the founder of what was then called Matrix Laboratories— Rs 2 crore at first, and another Rs 3 crore later—and a few other smaller donations, Gopichand had established the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy.

The academy, he says, is still far from running on full steam. There are a total of 55 employees, of which eight work as coaches and six as support staff. He says he would like to hire more and further improve facilities, but because of the lack of sponsors, he is making do with just these. Of the 120 players who train under Gopichand, around 50 live in the academy. Those who only come for training pay a monthly fee of only Rs 2,000, while those who live on the premises, either in the twin-sharing rooms or dormitories, pay between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000. Apart from the eight courts, the academy also has a swimming pool, a football field, a gym, a running track, ice and steam bath facilities, and a cafeteria.

Throughout the day, parents turn up with their children at the academy, requesting Gopichand to take on their wards, but the coach has to decline. “He’s stopped taking calls on the phone too, worried that people will call to make requests. We get around 20 requests in a day sometimes,” Bose says.

The players who live at the academy lead a life of monastic devotion. They are up by four, and play and work out throughout the day, in different and multiple batches until 6.30 in the evening. They eat what they are given, including meat for protein, which has been tough for some of those, like Srikanth, who were raised as vegetarians. Their cellphones are held by the hostel warden throughout the week, and only returned on Sundays, the day they are given a break. This rule has been relaxed for senior players. When asked how teenagers under one roof do not find it in them to break rules, an 18-year-old badminton player from Madhya Pradesh, Aaditya Joshi, who has been living at the academy for the last two months, says, “After Gopi sir’s training, nothing but a bed to sleep in looks appealing.”

In the rare instance that players disobey rules, Gopichand swoops down on them. He is given to surprise checks to ensure players sleep and eat at the right time. He has installed CCTV cameras in every part of the academy, except for the rooms and dormitories, and its footage is repeatedly checked by Gopichand, the warden, and his family. Once a week, Gopichand’s father, says Bose, goes through the footage to look for any misconduct. Comparing coaching to raising several children, Gopichand says, “Since you have lived the life of a sportsperson, you often know what is best for them. You can’t train for eight hours a day and then go ahead, in non-training hours, to do something detrimental to all the effort you just put in. I tell them, if they want to be champions, there can never be any compromises.”

Despite his harsh reputation, Gopichand is an extremely amiable man with little pomp. He will answer every question with thought and reflection. He will agree with a photographer’s demands, even if it involves standing with comically bent knees. But on court, he is stern. He arrives at the academy at four every morning, and is the last to leave, at 7 pm. He says he has not taken a holiday with his family for several years. Gopichand’s mother, who arrives every morning at 9 and leaves her sandals at the academy’s door, handles the administration so that Gopichand can focus only on the talent.

Nineteen-year-old PV Sindhu, who has just won the Macau Open, has been training under Gopichand since she was eight. She does not use Twitter or Facebook because she does not find the time and considers them distractions. Her Facebook page is managed by her sponsor Li Ning, a Chinese badminton equipment manufacturer. She has recently begun to keep a cellphone, but this too is hardly used, and anyone who wants to connect with her has to be routed through her father. She trains for six days a week; her mother helps with her BCom lessons at night—she is currently in her third year at St Ann’s College in Hyderabad—and she relaxes at home only on Sundays. If she wants to meet friends, her father accompanies her.

“In the life of a sportsperson, if you really want to excel,” she says, “you should be struggling to fit in anything in your life other than that sport.”

Sindhu is currently the poster girl for badminton in India after Nehwal. At the young age of 19, she’s already won the bronze twice at the BWF World Championships, a gold at the Malaysia Open Grand Prix Gold, and her second gold at the Macau Open Badminton Championships recently.

Ever since she took to the sport— inspired by watching Gopichand’s prowess on the badminton court—and began her training under him, her young life, aided by the support of her family, has been a model of absolute dedication. She initially lived in Secunderabad in Hyderabad, about 30 km away from the academy. Because she also needed to attend school, her father used to drive her to the academy every day for four years to make it to the academy at 4.30 am. After the training, he would have to drive her to her school and, later again, the academy for evening training. She lived in the academy for two years when the travelling became too tedious, but after she felt homesick, on the insistence of Gopichand, her parents moved to a house near the academy. In the many years that she has trained at the academy, she has often broken down into tears because of a scolding from Gopichand or because she believes she hadn’t been able to deliver her best.

Many, in fact, considered her at 5’11” to be ‘too tall’ to become a successful shuttler. Her knees were weak, her coverage of the back of the court was sluggish, and many opponents targeted the lower half of her legs. “But I always saw the talent in her, even at the young age of eight. And through the years, despite being so young, she always repaid my faith in her,” Gopichand says. “So to give more focus to her game, I began calling her even before the others arrived.” After she returned to India after winning the Macau Open, instead of celebrating with her family and friends, she reported the next morning for training again.

In comparison, when Srikanth first arrived at the academy from Guntur, in December 2009, already 15 years old, he was a bit of a slacker. Unlike his elder brother Kidambi Nandagopal who had already joined the academy earlier that year, Srikanth was, in his words, lost. “I was just doing nothing staying at home, participating in the occasional tournament. I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he remembers. His parents had to convince Gopichand to take the 15-year-old under his wing. According to Gopichand, what Srikanth lacked most was discipline. “He would play everything, from singles and doubles to mixed doubles. In every game, he would be all over the court, trying out every little stroke, smashing all the time. He was never cautious,” Gopichand says.

So to instil more discipline, Gopichand put the young shuttler under the pump. Trainings were made more rigorous, his shift was always the earliest, at 4 am, and Gopichand made him focus on just one game, singles. Many worried he would cave in and give up, but Srikanth’s response was positive. However, earlier this year in June, to everyone’s fear, Srikanth collapsed and went into a coma for several days. According to the doctors, the reason was probably a brain infection.

But five years since his entry to the academy, the drifter has turned into an ace player. He is not only attacking, but observant and cautious. Watching him work the shuttlecock around, hitting it at incredible speeds while moving around the court with the grace of a tennis player, he looks more like an artiste than an athlete. Currently at No 8, the highest ranked Indian male in the badminton rankings, a few weeks ago, he achieved the unimaginable, defeating Dan at the China Open. “As Gopi sir told me, I had nothing to lose,” Srikanth says. On the previous two occasions that he played Dan, as Srikanth describes it, it was a massacre. “But this time, I think he was just shocked. He didn’t expect me to play so well.”

The Academy has of late begun to suffer from a peculiar problem— that of Gopichand not finding enough time to devote to every champion player. “There’s a joke that’s been going around,” Maqdoom Ahmed, a manager at the academy, says, “that someone should start cloning Gopi sir.”

This was most evident at the World Championships last year at Guangzhou, where three players from the academy, Kashyap, Nehwal and Sindhu, made it to the quarterfinals of the event. Gopichand had to flit from one match to another, to stay by the side of each of his players for short durations of their match. Eventually only Sindhu was able to win a medal. “This has become a headache of late. Until we come up with enough quality coaches or make the players more self-reliant, this problem isn’t going to go away easily,” Gopichand says. Currently, he says, he has decided not to go on tours and instead stay back at the academy.

Nehwal, who has trained under Gopichand for several years, recently split from the coach to begin training under another coach, Vimal Kumar, saying that she felt Gopichand was not able to spend enough time on her. According to Kashyap, he doesn’t know how Gopichand is able to handle the work-load. “I don’t know how long he will be able to manage all this. But for now it seems to be working out well enough.”

At around 12:30 in the afternoon, the academy closes down for a few hours for lunch. Some players disappear into the dining room to eat, while others head into their rooms for a quick nap. The coaches and support staff aren’t around either. A sudden calm descends upon the courts. But beyond the glass that separates his office from the court, you can see a pensive Gopichand, waiting for the lunch break to get over.

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