Pullela Gopichand is the chief Indian national team coach credited for the broad-based success of Indian badminton. At times though, he seems to be held responsible for everything that is happening with Indian badminton, whether it is the need for Saina Nehwal to rediscover her form or the fact that officials have not done justice to our badminton doubles players. Given our sporting culture and ways of sports officialdom, that is not an easy crown to bear but Gopichand does carry out his duties with the dignity of a National Coach with the focus on delivering the next set of champions.
Manish Kalra caught up with Gopichand in an exclusive freewheeling discussion. Here are the excerpts
SR: So what is your assessment of the progress that Indian badminton has made ?
PG: Overall it has been good. The progress of Saina, Srikanth and Sindhu has been very good. The development of a second tier in Ajay Jayaram, Sai Praneeth and Prannoy is very heartening. However, there are areas of concern in terms of developing a second rung of women’s singles players and in improving our doubles.
SR: You have mentioned the need to develop coaches. What can be done in your view to develop coaches?
PG: There has to be a system-based approach with the people in SAI and the government too needs to get together with them. It has to be a combination of multiple factors like the right specialists and planning for the right kind of tournaments. The recent appointment of a Malaysian doubles coach is a step in the right direction.
SR: Your autobiography mentions how your mother would always keep you on your toes by asking whether you played with your seniors and during your coaching time, she would query whether you spent time with youngsters. What does she tell you now?
PG: I think the key concern is who next? The question is about looking for younger talent.
SR: What is the criterion for selecting youngsters for your academy?
PG: I think in the initial years, we picked whoever came up. I think we were lucky to have a great conversion ratio as 12-13 of those picked like Saina, Sindhu, Sikki Reddy, Kashyap, Sai & Sumeeth Reddy did very well. But other than the physical parameters what I look for is the attitude and ability to win matches.
SR: Tell us a bit more about Sindhu. She has the credentials as her World Championship bronze would indicate. When I saw her playing in August last year, one could see in her the enthusiasm and joy of playing at the highest level.
PG: Sindhu always had the spirit and fire to do well. Kids have different ways of adjusting but in her case, she always enjoys playing and working hard. She loves the atmosphere of the court and the challenges of the sport.
SR: How difficult is to manage injury and the subsequent recovery period for players like Sindhu?
PG: It has been a challenge. Sindhu loves to work hard and she enjoys playing and I try to keep her focus on the same. At 19, there are a lot of years ahead for her and while there is pressure due to past reputation, we have to ensure she enjoys her journey.
SR: How do you rate Sindhu’s chances in the World Championships where she will be bidding for her third medal?
PG: I think she is still at 60% of her game. She still has a long way to go. However she does have the potential as could be seen in her three-game tough loss against Li Xuerui just after her comeback.
SR: In your opinion what would it take to keep Kidambi Srikanth at the top? He has some big wins over top players like Lin Dan but has had mixed results recently
PG: The rise of Srikanth has been phenomenal. He is a young talent and there will be a need to revisit foundation of his play. People will read his game and adapt to his play. They will be able to read his existing weapons and prepare specifically for them. It is now Srikanth’s turn to move to another strategy. At 21, he is young and has many years to go. He has a lot of future.
SR: You were recently mentioning how Kashyap is playing well. What does Kashyap need to move to the next level?
PG: Yes, Kashyap has had a good season. He needs to stay focused and should try to remain injury-free. He has big 3-4 years ahead and should be in line to win big titles.
SR: We had news about your daughter doing well recently. We understand your mother accompanies her for tournaments?
PG: It is not just my daughter. There is a strong juniors’ group consisting of Vaishnavi (U-15 champion), Gayatri (U-13 champion and U-15 doubles winner) and Samiya (U-13 runner-up and U-13 doubles champion), who have been showing good results. We have a bunch of young talent and are seeing good results from them.
SR: I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Ashok Rajgopal and speak about his operation of your knee. Are you still in touch with the doctor?
PG: He is now extremely busy but we do catch up and I recently had dinner at his house. As a surgeon, he was able to give me great confidence.