The extraordinary rise of Indian badminton can be seen in the last few months. We won the Thomas Cup in great style and swept the CWG with three gold medals one silver and two bronze. How did all this happen? How did India break the shackles of mediocrity and become a champion nation?
Enough has been said about the coaching system of Pulella Goichand and his relentless pursuit of perfection. No doubt Gopi has had a major share in grooming India to this level.
But there has been another person whose contribution cannot be ignored and that is none other than the legend Prakash Padukone who pioneered the academy system way back in 1994, when, along with Vimal Kumar, he opened the fabled Prakash Padukone badminton academy (in the 8 courts of Karnataka Badminton Association)
This was really catering to the sport in a significant manner. For the first time, we had a hostel, transport to the venue, good food in the mess, top-class coaching and physical training and a physio available all the time. And a weight training hall which is very essential in today’s scenario.
Furthermore, with the sponsorship of the PPBA to the BPL, the academy was also free for the national players who made a beeline to go to Bangalore to travel to the PPBA. These players included Aparna Popat, Manjusha Kanwar, Dipankar Bhattacharyya and even Gopichand, who trained under the watchful eyes of Prakash himself for two years. As PPBA became more and more popular and more time was required to coach, time restrictions at the Karnataka badminton association stadium did not help and PPBA had to move out to a new facility.
They moved to a 16 plush court in the new centre called the Padukone-Dravid Sports Centre. It is a state-of-the-art facility and many top-class players have graduated from here. The latest sensation to emerge out of the PPBA is Lakshya Sen who has been training at the PPBA for ten years. So the PPBA has done its bit to ensure that Indian badminton is on a rise.
Of course, it was Gopichand and his method of teaching that is making such a difference.
Gopi came back to Hyderabad to a fantastic reception after he won 2001 All England title. A delighted CM Chandrababu Naidu asked how to ensure that Andhra Pradesh produces more players like him. Gopi told him that if he could have a world-class coaching academy then there is a strong chance we may get some top-class players. “All facilities have to be under one roof. In my career, there were no academies with such facilities and I was hard pressed to train properly. Weights were at one end, courts at one end, training ground for track work at another place. So a lot of time was wasted commuting. So give me a place where everything was under one roof”, Gopi had said then.
Naidu did just that, signing an executive order and releasing 4 acres of land plus plot in Gachibowli in 2001. Gopi struggled to set up the academy, but by 2008 it was complete. By 2006 Gopi had started coaching at the Gachibowli stadium and by 2008 he had, in Saina Nehwal, an outstanding player who was a glutton for hard work. Saina started winning international tournaments and by 2008 she was ranked world number 2.
By this time the then President of BAI was desperate to showcase Indian badminton at the 2010 CWG being held in Delhi. Against all objections, he appointed Gopi as chief national coach. BK Verma told me, “I called Gopi to Delhi and asked him to lay out a blueprint for the future of Indian badminton. He was sincere and wanted to establish a rising standard of Indian badminton.”
The 2010 CWG was a resounding success. Thereafter within 2 to 3 years, he had an array of world beaters coming out from his academy. Players like PV Sindhu, Parupalli Kashyap, Kidambi Shrikanth, Guru Sai Dutt, Sai Praneeth, Saisatwik Rankareddy, HS Prannoy and many others.
So what had been the reasons behind this resounding success story of Gopi and his devils?
He realised while he was playing that Indian players had to be as fit as Chinese, Indonesians Malaysians and Koreans. That was the key. He used to say that players of the aforementioned countries do not jump 8 feet high or have the strength of a Tarzan. He told the players that if he can do it why not them?
“I told them that you must have self-belief, confidence in yourself and results will come.”
And slowly but surely India started to be recognised as a rising power in the sport and the rest of the world started to give respect to our players. We started to win the BWF events all over the world. But in the team championship, we still struggled, as we did not have a balanced team. That happened when Lakshya Sen came of age. As the Almora lad established himself in 2021, reaching the finals of some major tournaments he really caught the imagination of the country when he won the India Open in February and reached the finals of the all-England and the German Open and grabbed a bronze medal on debut in the world championships.
“With Srikanth and Prannoy already established and Sen playing in top form, the nucleus of a balanced team was falling into place. And Thomas cup was looming near,” says Vimal Kumar the former India chief coach.
“I said in a meeting of the BAI selection committee that we have a very good chance of actually winning the Cup but we must plan in earnest from now,” remembers Vimal. But, no one understood the seriousness of what Vimal was implying. But by mid-April, it was clear that our main doubles pair of Saisatwik Rankareddy and Chirag Shetty was also ready.
So now we have four very strong events for the Thomas cup. Three singles and top doubles. Gopichand also told the press that “We may have the most balanced team in the fray. The boys have to just gel well and play together as a team.”
With Vimal now appointed the manager and leader of the team, it was apparent that he will bring a system and process to follow. In the few days of training together as a team, it emerged that comradeship had emerged and all the boys were committed to doing their very best and more. And that if we keep our heads down and avoid injury we had the capability of lifting the cup.
With that in mind, the team landed in Bangkok and created history by defeating Malaysia, Denmark and Indonesia in a row to stun the world.
The CWG in July loomed large and it was clear that Sindhu and Rankareddy/ Shetty had a good chance of winning gold. In the case of Sindhu, it was a foregone conclusion as Padukone correctly put it, “Sindhu is a certainty for gold in singles.”
As it happened that they all played their heart out and got gold in both singles and the men’s doubles. Sen played one of the finest matches of his young career defeating Ng Tze Yong of Malaysia in the summit clash.
So two of the best and most prestigious tournaments and we dominated both, the Thomas cup and the CWG. In a way, India’s rise has been unparalleled in the history of the game. But what of the future? How long will our supremacy last? That is the moot question.
Let’s face it, Srikanth and Prannoy are both in their 30s now, and we need to identify who are players who can step into their shoes. We have Mithun Manjunath, Kiran George and a couple of others who can step in the shoes of Srikanth, but it will take lots of doing to ensure that they are worthy successors.
We are better in men’s doubles as Saisatwik Rankareddy and Chirag Shetty are young and can continue for the next 4-5 years at least. And in Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun, we have a pair coming up fast. There is surprisingly more depth in doubles than in singles. We have Thomas cup coming back in 2024 so we have just two years to train and find good substitutes or we will come a cropper.
In the next CWG in 2026, Sindhu will be 29 years old and may find it difficult to play as comprehensively as she did in 2022. Unnati Hooda is the most likely player to come in her place. Sindhu will still be a force, but if she can retain her fitness, she may still dominate the next CWG.
Gayatri Gopichand and Tressa Jolly gave a good account of themselves as they fought valiantly to get a bronze in Birmingham. They have many years of top-class badminton left in them. Mixed doubles is one area where we are traditionally and historically weak. And we need to address that now by giving lots of exposure to our mixed doubles pairs.
So if get our thinking straight, and plan for short-term and long-term goals we may continue to rise and rise in world badminton. Otherwise, this rise may prove to be a mirage.