IN March 2013, a coaching camp for coaches was held at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. Though on the face of it, the aim was to get coaches to see for themselves the best practises put in place at the academy, that is recognised by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) as one of the centres of excellence in the world, it was also an acknowledgement of what one centre can do to take a hitherto neglected sport to make it one of the most happening and followed sport in the country today.
Walk into the academy any day and invariably you would find some hopeful parent or the other, requesting Pullela Gopichand for a seat for their son or daughter. More often than not, the parents come with stars in their eyes and the wish is simple : “Make my son another Gopichand, make my daughter the next Saina Nehwal.”
To all such parents, Gopi has one standard answer. “It is not easy. You have to sacrifice everything else if you have to make it big in the world of badminton. It cannot happen that you play for a few hours, also attend school and college regularly, go for movie outings regularly, have a pizza or burger when you wish and also enjoy a holiday in the US.” Badminton, in Gopichand’s view, demands more than 100 per cent devotion and only such wards find place.
But for the last three years or so, Gopi has not added too many players to his existing pool of 150 players, unless they come on the strength of some fabulous performances at the national or district levels. Like 14-year-old Ruthvika Shivani, who came to Gopi’s academy in July last year from Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh, having won the under-15 national title in singles and doubles and the doubles under-17 national title. One look at her game, and there was no way Gopi was letting go of such talent.
That in a nutshell is the work ethic that keeps the game going in India. Much of it has followed from what Gopi himself experienced during his days as a player. He saw for himself how fellow players fell by the wayside because they did not have the determination, focus besides the talent to take their game to the next level. Because coaching in badminton was almost primitive in its approach during Gopi’s playing days, he wasted a lot of time and energy indulging in trial and error. Where he gained was by getting to train in the German league that opened the window of opportunity of not only playing with quality sparring partners but having access to world-class facilities that Indian players then could only dream of.
For instance, even shuttle cocks were perennially in short supply for Indian badminton players. A gym meant a couple of rickety equipment and players were more scared of injuring themselves on them. Physiotherapy was non-existent.
Gopi’s All-England triumph in March 2001 changed the way badminton was played and followed in India. An entire generation of boys and girls took to the game because Gopi had shown that it was possible to win at the highest level. And money started trickling into the game, that helped sponsor a few deserving players.
Among the youngsters who had just begun playing badminton a couple of years prior to Gopi’s victory in Birmingham, UK was Saina Nehwal. She was eleven years old when Gopi won the title and was among those who had seen Gopi practise on the adjoining court at the LB Indoor stadium in Hyderabad. Greatly inspired, her sole dream now was to win an Olympic medal, preferably the gold.
When that moment of triumph came in Saina’s life at the 2012 London Olympics in August, when she won the bronze medal, it was like a dream come true. Here was a girl from Hisar in Haryana who had taken to badminton by chance after her father’s transfer to Hyderabad and had demonstrated by sheer grit and determination that ‘impossible is nothing’. A virtue inculcated in her by her strict mother.
Rewind to the under-10 badminton tournament in Thane in Maharashtra where Saina lost in the semi-final in 1999. Goverdhan Reddy who used to coach the 9-year-old then remembers that moment when Saina was exiting the court.
“There was a grill that she had to cross. Her mother Usha Rani was standing beside the grill. The moment Saina crossed, Usha Rani slapped her. I rushed asking, Aunty why are you hitting her? Her reply in Hindi was : ‘Jis tarah se khelna tha, nahin kheli nalayak. Bilkul dhyan se nahi kheli’ (She did not play the game the way she should have. She just did not concentrate).”
Over the years, Saina Nehwal has attributed part of her success on court to those tight slaps delivered by her mother. Usha Rani had a good reputation as a badminton player back home in Hisar and used to play mixed doubles with husband Dr Harvir Singh on the agricultural university campus. She would often tell Goverdhan, “What I could not achieve, Saina should.” In fact, Harvir Singh reckons Usha Rani a better skilled player than Saina. “Even today, people who saw her play in Hisar remember her flicks, the way she would move her wrist,” he says.
What makes Saina’s meteoric rise truly special is the manner in which her parents, once they recognised her talent in badminton, backed her to the hilt. What helped was their own passion for the sport and the mother’s regret in not making it big. Which is why London is a dream fulfilled as much for
Usha Rani as it is for Saina.
The Nehwal family revolves around Saina. And not just now because of her star status. It has been the case ever since she wielded a racquet for the first time in May 1999. It was as if the family was on a mission to make her a champion shuttler. Though elder sister Abu Chandranshu flirted with volleyball, Saina’s time on the court occupied everyone’s mindspace. The shuttler acknowledges that no family problem was ever discussed with her and everyone only ensured she remained happy to focus on badminton.
It isn’t easy for a middle-class family to bear the costs involved in encouraging the child to take to professional badminton. Travelling for tournaments burnt a hole in the Nehwal family pocket but the parents were backing their instincts. And perhaps their own DNA too.
Today, visit the Nehwal home and Harvir Singh will point to every white good and artefact and tell you it is bought by Saina. Yes, there is regret that she could not complete her education but the parents console themselves by saying she has achieved a lot more. “Saina must be the only child who does not go to her college as a student but as a chief guest. And has a block in the school she studied in, named after her,” says Harvir Singh.
Those are some of the sacrifices professional sportspersons have to necessarily make, says Gopichand. “The day I wrote my final year B.A exam, I promised myself I will never write an exam again in my life. Most of the students at the academy study for a month before the exams and score 70 per cent. That’s enough. Because this sport needs focus 365 days a year, 24×7,” he says.
Saina is one of those who has believed in this mantra 100 per cent. The Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad is like her second home and workplace, rolled into one. For two months, before the London Olympics, she spent over 12 hours at the Academy, returning home only to give company to her bed in the night. The decision to make her lose 5.5 kg in the first three months of 2012 was a gamble. Gopi wanted to ensure she moved faster on court and her ability to retrieve quick on court in London was proof that luck favours the brave.
Saina’s regret remains that she did not have gold to declare to the customs when she returned to India but the bronze medal has worked magic for Indian badminton. Saina’s London exploits, coupled with P Kashyap’s brave showing has acted as a catalyst for gen-next of badminton aspirants and their parents.
Kashyap has already broken into the top 10 and P V Sindhu is another singles player who promises more medals for India in badminton at the Rio Olympics. Saina, riding on the back of a hugely successful year, has been nominated among the five best women players of the year by the BWF, a huge recognition for the badminton powerhouse that India is growing to be. And at the month-long badminton summer camp in May this year, the coaches expect the numbers to swell beyond the 120 aspiring shuttlers who enrol every year.
One thing is certain. The rising number of badminton players are sure to challenge the ‘Made in China’ products that are dominating the scene today.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author of Saina Nehwal: An Inspirational Biography)