Call him the Badminton icon or state his official position—the chief national coach, Pullela Gopichand has been the motivation behind many who are swinging their rackets on the biggest stage at the moment. The genie is out of the bottle now and Indian badminton contingent is ready to take on the world. And in all fairness, there has never been anything like his two wards—Saina and Sindhu—who have been winning tournaments like a robot fitted with an artificial intelligence chip.
Be it Saina’s recent win at the Indonesia Masters or Sindhu shedding her chokers tag at the BWF World Tour Final last year, Gopichand has been diligently working behind the scenes to make sure things are running smoothly. While India has been at the cusp of winning gold medal in badminton at the Olympics, Gopichand is confident of the chances this time around even as he emphasises on the importance of winning All England Championship. In an interview to The Sunday Guardian, he talks about Saina’s striving for continued excellence and how he envisions Indian badminton in the forthcoming future.
Q: Can we expect gold this time at Tokyo Olympics considering our improved performances in the last outings?
A: Over the last few years, we have always done better at success in Olympics. We had quarter-finals in Beijing, we had bronze in London and a silver medal at Rio. I hope it will be a gold in Tokyo.
Q: How do you see Saina Nehwal’s recent win in the Indonesian Masters?
A: I think Saina’s win in Indonesia was fantastic. To get into the semi-finals of Malaysian Open and win the Indonesian Masters at the beginning of the season is fantastic. She won her first Indonesian Open in 2009. Personally, I feel she had a fabulous career where she has played consistently at the highest level over 10 years. That’s fantastic results. It just shows she is good now. I believe she has some more years of badminton left in her.
Q: What is it that keeps her going? She made a comeback from injury last year and she is one of the oldest in the top 10 shuttlers around the globe. How do you train her, keeping in mind her age?
A: For me, Saina is somebody who is supremely motivated. It is very hard to find someone with the kind of hunger she has, and she has this obsession to keep pushing herself… and she is never satisfied with the results. Her practice is of very high quality. She is somebody who has a deep desire to do well and continue playing.
Q What are the prospects of Saina and P.V. Sindhu in the All England Championship?
A: I think the same players who were there at the Indonesian and the Malaysian Masters will be present in the All England. It is not going to be any different but the All England has a big hall with hard surface to play with and it is quite physical. So, for me, the challenge is that you not only play against the opposition but you are playing against the environment as well and that makes the All England a tough tournament to play. It is one where you not only play for your opponents but you have to prepare for the environment of the All England.
Q: Do you think it would be comparatively easier since Carolina Marin may not play the tournament and also Tai TzuYing recuperating from a wrist injury?
A: Well, that is unfortunate what happened to Carolina. She has been a great player. In fact, she has always done well at the biggest events. She would have been a formidable opposition to have… but having said that… her not being there at this year’s All England will make it less tougher but I don’t think winning it will easier because we still have some of the top player playing in tournament whether it’s Tai Tzu or Ratchanok Intanon and of course, the Chinese as well. It is going to be tough… that’s what I would like to say.
Q: Are there any specific plans in place for Olympics?
A: The Olympic qualification has just started and for me, I think it’s very important that we have the players qualify as many in number and also not only qualify barely but go into the Olympics with a good ranking. I think, to be able to qualify for the Olympics with a clear margin so that the last few months they can focus on training, that would be an important aspect of the Olympic qualification.
Q: As a coach what is it essentially that you have to keep in mind when you train them for such big tournaments? And how do you see Indian badminton making some big strides every year?
A: Well, I think the Indian badminton has done very well over the last few years. Having said that there is also huge amount of young talent coming up and it’s very important that we focus on areas like coach development and sustainable player development, and having the top players continue playing. It is very important to start investing in the entire system around badminton whether it’s coaching or the support staff, the structures, the policies, dropouts and also ensuring that the top players are remaining fit and continue to play for a long period.