An hour and a half after we are to meet, I am still waiting at Pullela Gopichand’s office. So are others: parents, vendors, guests. “Saturdays are the busiest days for us,” his secretary tells us.
Gopichand is a badminton star and All-England Championship trophy winner, and India’s most sought-after coach. The top five players at the 76th National Badminton Championship in Bangalore last month were from his academy. He coaches world No. 2 player Saina Nehwal.
The guru comes to his academy at 4.30 am. His daily schedule is packed. He coaches and motivates players, manages their individual strengths and weakness, counsels parents, meets sponsors and nutrient vendors. One man does it all.
Gopichand is in demand because Indians are waking up to this game. Prakash Padukone was a star in the 1980s, followed by Gopichand and Nehwal. But a new generation is on its way up. It includes P V Sindhu, Sourabh Verma, B Sai Praneeth, Jwala Gutta, B Kashyap, Arundhati Pantawane, Aditi Mutakar, Thulasi P C, Aparna Popat, Mohita Sahdev, Dhanya Nair, Neha Pandit, Ajay Jayaram and Anand Pawar. These shuttlers have made a mark at national and international ranking tournaments in the last five or six years. P V Sindhu at 16 was the youngest national champion. She and P Kashyap, ranked 25th in the world among men, are Gopichand’s prodigies. These players, he says, are helping to make badminton in India what it never was: aspirational.
“In the 1980s and 1990s the perception and awareness of the game was not much,” Gopichand says. “Finding a good coach, a good sparring partner and good shuttles was very difficult.” Still, he won the national championship five times in a row, 1996-2000. He became the second Indian, after Padukone in 1980, to win the All-England Open Badminton Championship men’s singles title, in 2001. He got the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, India’s highest award for a sportsperson, an Arjuna Award, a Padma Shri and a Dronacharya Award. His academy, the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA), now trains the country’s most successful players.
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Located in Hyderabad’s IT suburb of Gachibowli, next door to a business school and several IT majors, PGBA is a powerhouse of badminton. It started with 60 trainees in 2008 and has seen a five-fold increase in its intake since then to 250 — plus more than 200 on the waiting list. It is one of Badminton Asia Confederation’s very few Asia Training Centres. The others are in China, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Andhra Pradesh government sanctioned five acres for the Academy in 2003, with a 45-year lease, at Rs 1,000 per acre per month. Gopichand spent Rs 10 crore building the first phase, with eight badminton courts, 14 rooms and a kitchen. Despite his profile, it was not easy to raise this sum.
In the first place, Gopichand, a banker’s son, was selective about donors. After he won the All-England trophy in 2001, he was offered a sponsorship deal by a cola company but did not take it, saying that he could not endorse the drink. In the absence of state or institutional funding, he turned to corporations. The bulk of the money came from N Prasad, a relative who founded Matrix Laboratories. Prasad put in something under Rs 6 crore, and brought in a lesser sum from other businessmen. To make up the shortfall Gopichand mortgaged his house for Rs 3 crore.
PGBA is now partially built on four acres, with another acre to be added soon. The main building, 42 ft tall and 270 ft long, houses eight international-standard wooden flooring courts, a health club with gym, jacuzzi and steam room, a yoga centre and meditation hall. It has residential facilities for 70 players and coaches. The fees are Rs 2,000 a month, and trainees who board pay Rs 15,000 a month.
Before PGBA opened, Gopichand used the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium. Now, eight to 10 Indian players are in the world’s top 50, and a similar number from his academy are in the top 100. Players flock to Hyderabad from around India, and from Sri Lanka, Canada, Australia and Italy. Overseas students come for 15 days’ or a month’s training. “We get 10-15 parents every day and many more enquiries for admission,” Gopichand says. “The demand is now so much that we have stopped taking new students.” He has had to turn students away every day since he founded PGBA. “Even if we add 30 courts, we will not meet the demand.” PGBA has 10 coaches, and training classes are conducted in two sessions, from 4.30 to 6, morning and evening. The rest of the time, the trainees practice on the courts. Physical fitness is crucial, so there is rigorous training on court and off. Trainees weight-train thrice a week, run, and spend hours on badminton. “Our players used to lose matches due to a lack of physical fitness,” says H S Prannoy, a Youth Olympics silver medallist. “The trend is changing. I have improved a lot since I joined the academy three years back. During my training for the Youth Olympics, Gopi bhaiyya played with me for a month, which gave me strength and confidence. He stays at the Academy from early morning till evening, and you can approach him any time for tips or feedback.” Now Gopichand is coaching Saina Nehwal for the 2012 Olympics. If not for his Academy, she might still be using a hotel gym or a club swimming pool to train.
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"I could have done better if I had these facilities," Gopichand says. Because he did not get the best coaching and facilities as a young player, he was already 27, and injury-prone, when he won the All-England trophy. His best playing years were behind him. He wants to make sure other players are not let down.
Today India has only two international-standard academies, the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bangalore and Gopichand’s in Hyderabad. Elsewhere, Gopichand says, facilities are inadequate. Badminton is popular in the south, and Andhra Pradesh dominates: of the 250 trainees at PGBA, over 200 are from the same state. Badminton needs more support, tournaments and infrastructure. “I get a proposal every month to start a new academy across the country,” says Gopichand. So far he has started one, a satellite academy in Gwalior supported by the Madhya Pradesh government. “But the fact remains that unless we get the right people and the right coaches, we will restrict [interest and capacity in badminton] from growing.”