Even as Saina Nehwal’s third Djarum Indonesia Open title was celebrated across India, the man who devised her successful campaign stayed out of the spotlight.
Yet it was her coach Pullela Gopichand’s astute planning and foresight that culminated in another Superseries title – a victory that will see Nehwal head into the Olympics as one of the favourites for the gold medal.
It is not just with his star pupil that Gopichand has achieved impressive feats. As chief strategist for a strong and youthful Indian team, the former All England winner is rated one of the sport’s most accomplished coaches.
Consider the achievements he has savoured. Both Nehwal and the other singles Olympic qualifier, Parupalli Kashyap, are his trainees.
A week before Nehwal’s back-to-back wins in Thailand and Indonesia in June, the little-known K Srikanth – another Gopichand trainee – stunned World Junior Champion Zulfadli Zulkifli in the final of the Maldives International. Perhaps the most exciting young talent in Gopi’s stable is PV Sindhu, who became the first Indian girl to win the badminton Asia Youth U-19 Championships in early July. Then there are players like HS Prannoy (2010 Youth Olympic silver medallist), national champion Sourabh Verma, his younger brother and Asian Junior finalist (2011) Sameer Verma, World Junior semifinalist (2010) Sai Praneeth, Guru Sai Dutt, and a few others who are entering the senior international circuit and already have several promising results to their credit.
To manage a player of Nehwal’s stature is challenging enough, but how does Gopichand manage so many young players simultaneously?
The answer, he says, is in establishing a system and managing it. He has solicited Indonesian help – the coaches associated with his academy include respected names such as Hadi Idris, Atik Jauhari and Edwin Iriwan – who have brought world-class coaching expertise to Indian camps. Besides that, Gopi works himself to the bone.
“When I’m in India, I don’t travel,” Gopi says. “When I’m in Hyderabad, I’m at the academy through the day. The first batch comes in at 4.30 a.m. – I’m there by 4.15. With each batch I get one hour. I’m done at the academy by 6.30 p.m., I retire for the day by 9.30 p.m.
“There are so many of them that require attention – Sourabh, Sai, Guru, Kashyap. We need them to be consistent. The younger guys are getting results against the second-rung Indonesians and Malaysians. We’re getting better but we need to move to the next level.”
When Gopi took over as national chief coach in 2006, he was clear about one thing: Indian players had to be fit. For years, Indians were regarded as skilful players who couldn’t last the distance in a tough fight. Gopi was determined to change that and established a system which emphasised physical fitness as much as it did the game’s technical aspects.
The result: a generation of youngsters who are extremely confident in their physical abilities.
To hear an Indian player claim she is a match for the world’s best players in terms of stamina or power would have been unthinkable ten years ago but Gopi has effected a fundamental change in the value system of his players.
Today, Gopichand’s is the brain on which the Indian challenge is built. He is aware of how tough things can get for Saina Nehwal. He has to ensure she is constantly improving and countering her rivals’ moves.
“There’s a need to be smart. You need to be ahead, and sometimes go by gut feeling and intuition. At the end of the day, you need confidence to plan and tell your player to execute a certain strategy. It involves a lot of things…thinking ahead about what’s to be done.”
One of the crucial decisions Gopi and Nehwal made in April was to try and reduce her weight by five kilos, to help improve her movement. That decision seems to have worked wonders, for she looked sharp and agile during her two tournament wins in June.
“It was a conscious decision taken; continuous improvement is necessary,” said Gopi. “Saina’s game is different today from how it was a few years ago. It’s important for her to keep getting better and sharper.”
There can be no better stage than the Olympics for the five shuttlers who will represent India. In his only Olympics as a player – Sydney 2000 – this tactical wizard faltered in the third round. It’s a defeat that still rankles him.
An Indian medal in London would go a long way to healing that pain.