In a nation obsessed with cricket, badminton is rapidly climbing up the ladder as one of India’s favourite sports. This is no exaggeration. Badminton has inarguably given the country’s best athlete of the past decade in P V Sindhu. Indian challenges at World Championships and to the world number one spots are becoming more common while the last two Olympics have yielded medals. But Sunday’s win at the Thomas Cup for men was the crowning glory.
Pullela Gopichand has seen it all. From an All England winner to revolutionising the game as a coach, he’s done it all. In a freewheeling chat with DH’s Sandeep Menon, Gopichand speaks about the rise of badminton in the country and its future.
This Thomas Cup win, how do you look at it as a moment in Indian badminton?
It is a huge moment. I think we’ve had some great individual successes and a few good team successes as well, but to have a Thomas Cup gold medal is huge. This is almost like the pinnacle in some sense. It’s a great thing to actually not only win it but the way they’ve won it. To be consistent. Quarterfinals we beat Malaysia, Denmark in the semifinals and Indonesia in the final. It is stupendous.
You mentioned individual moments. What makes this different from those individual successes?
They came together as a team. It was very evident that each of them contributed to the other’s success. Each of them was there supporting the other and that was a big plus of this team.
How difficult is it to translate individual success into team success?
It is in some sense, even this championship, you could still call it an individual sport, because each one goes on court and plays his or her match and walks off. But in terms of a team victory, it just has to fall in place. All of their preparation has to be good, they all have to peak at the right time and pull out those matches at the right time. Injuries have to be less. So a lot of things can go wrong but I think everything coming together needs a bit of divine grace as well and I’m glad and happy that it happened for us and our country.
People are hoping this win will do the same to badminton as the 1983 World Cup win did to cricket. Do you agree?
It’s not that we have not had any successes in the past. Whether it is the World Championships or Olympics. All of those have been fantastic. Yes, the women kind of have been ahead and hogging the limelight. Yes, as far as men’s badminton and team events are concerned, I think this is the biggest moment.
The doubles have always been considered a weak link. How impressed are you with the performances of Satwik and Chirag?
I think doubles has come a long way, not just talking about Satwik and Chirag, others are also starting to pick up. Of course, there is more work to be done. I am happy that the second and third doubles teams also showed character whenever they played. In a team championship, the first and second matches are crucial. Once you have a good lead or momentum going into the tie, I think, you are in a strong position. So when you win one of the first two, it’s a huge impact. In the final, the moment India won the men’s singles, we started to put more pressure and that made the opponents make mistakes. But overall, Satwik and Chirag have been fantastic.
Badminton is a sport that has grown a lot in the past decade or so. What would you attribute its growth to?
The fact is that we consistently had these moments of inspiration. Say from 2008, Saina had that quarterfinal moment in the Olympics. In 2010 we had gold medals at the Commonwealth Games; when the country was tied with England, Saina won the last one to overtake them. It was the badminton gold medal. Then in 2012, we had Saina win the Olympic medal. In 2014 we had (Parupalli) Kashyap and Guru (sai Dutt) win Commonwealth gold and bronze. In 2016 we had Rio (Sindhu’s silver), 2018 we had CWG gold and 2019 World Champion, 2021 Olympics and World Championship and today in 2022 we have this. We’ve had these moments where some people have done exceptionally well and that has helped a lot.
In the last few years, the growth has also been due to the support we’ve received from the Government because that has helped the top players focus completely on the court. Travel, training and other expenses have been completely taken care of by the Government. This has been a huge help.
Looking forward, where do you see Indian badminton going now with the talent pool we have and the next generation coming up?
The sport looks good. The number of people playing the sport and pursuing it professionally is huge. Infrastructure growth in the country is enormous. I believe this will culminate with better players at the top. Having said that, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure there is a system and more and more players are reaching the top.
So a far cry from when you started, having to take loans and other things to start your academy...
I remember in 1994 the government didn’t clear the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games because the norm was will they reach the top six? That was 1994. Today we are here. I have seen this entire transformation happen and it has been amazing to see.
What do you feel about the role you played in the change?
It’s been a dream. Very few people in their lifetime get opportunities as I have had. I’m really thankful to God and the many people who have supported me on this journey.
In your role as VP of the Badminton Association of India, can you let us know about any plans?
I think in due course we will come up with a plan with the association and we will let you know. Overall, I’m really thankful to Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is our president. Because as a coach or a player or academy you work independently but here there is a lot of collaboration and convincing to do. And his support means a lot for the sport and what we’ve achieved is great but what we can achieve makes it very exciting.
We constantly get badminton results to publish from the events that keep happening in Bengaluru. So the ecosystem has a lot of opportunities to play and develop.