It was at the 2008 Beijing Games that we first witnessed Indian badminton's true potential. Saina Nehwal, a trainee of the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad, had made it to the Olympic quarterfinal only to lose to Indonesia's Maria Kristin Yulianti after a close contest. Naturally, Saina and the Academy hogged the limelight.
Pullela Gopichand, who ran the academy, was already a big name in the Indian badminton scene. An Arjuna Award winner, he was only the second Indian after his mentor Prakash Padukone, to win the All England Open Badminton Championship in 2001.
Now, as a coach, he was starting to deliver results. After the 2008 feat, the credibility of the Academy was further strengthened by Parupalli Kashyap when he won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Gopichand was determined to keep the medals coming and, in trying to do so, relentlessly pushed his wards.
Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta published by HarperCollins India throws light on the difficult period for both Saina and Gopi.
“That's what resulted in a misunderstanding,” recalls Kashyap, who married Saina in December 2018.
‘Saina and I were going out at the time. While we were both 100 per cent committed to badminton, we also had a life of our own. Gopi sir was upset, thinking we might end up neglecting the game. It wasn’t the best thing to happen and our performances at the Asian Games suffered as a result.’
Gopi, who had helped Saina grow as an athlete and had great hopes from Kashyap, sees it slightly differently. ‘I am no moral police to tell them what to do and what not to do. They are all adults and they have a life of their own. But as a coach, it is my job to make them realize their potential and that’s what I was trying to do. It was a rather complicated situation and none of us benefited from what happened,’ said Gopi.
‘In 2011, I went up to Saina and told her that together we could win that elusive Olympic medal. We had every chance of making history as long as she allowed me to fashion her training for the next twelve months. I have to say I was doing it for myself as well. I wanted that Olympic medal as bad as she did and did not want to leave anything to chance,’ said Gopi.
In the months leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, Gopi had added high-intensity training to Saina’s schedule and both she and Kashyap benefited from the change. ‘We had never trained like that before and, as a result, we were fitter and ready for fast-paced matches going into the Olympics.'
However, Saina lost a tactical battle to China's Wang Yihan in the semifinal.
‘I even remember Gopi sir yelling at Saina, telling her what Wang Yihan was doing. But the enormity of the occasion had consumed Saina and she was unable to stem the tide. In the evening she was hugely depressed,' Kashyap recalls.
Saina was lucky in winning the bronze after an injured Li retiring hurt from the playoff. Years of endurance and labour had finally translated into an Olympic medal for her and Gopi.
“I can’t describe what it meant to each one of us. Srikanth, Sai, Guru, Prannoy and the next lot of players training at the academy all benefitted from her medal. It was our real breakthrough moment,’ Kashyap said.
While things should have taken an upward turn for Indian badminton after the London Olympics, Gopi’s life was soon caught in a quagmire as he was trying to help Saina while also helping the lot of upcoming players who had all started to make giant strides in their games.
Sindhu, who up until then was in Saina’s shadow, was making big statements on the world stage and had started to beat higher-ranked opponents in the circuit.
From one star student in Saina, Gopi now had his hands full with a group of players all capable of winning medals for India. With no one to back him up, it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to take care of each of the players who craved and needed one-on-one attention and guidance. It was Sindhu’s bronze medal at the 2013 World Championships that made things more and more complicated for Gopi. By this time people around Saina had started to influence her, suggesting that Gopi wasn’t giving her undivided attention anymore. She was often left to fend for herself.
Things came to a head at the World Championships of 2014 in Denmark. Yet again, Sindhu did brilliantly to win a bronze, her second successive World Championship medal, while Saina failed to rise up to her favourite tag, losing out early.
Saina was shattered, recalls Kashyap.
Gopi had promised to speak to Saina at the end of the tournament and sort things out but the situation had spiralled out of control. She wasn’t willing to wait anymore and had made up her mind on leaving the academy. Gopi, on the other hand, was very keen to have her stay but hadn’t done enough to salvage the situation.
With a lot of negativity around, Saina decided to leave Hyderabad and move to Bengaluru to the Prakash Padukone Academy and train with Vimal Kumar.
‘It was as if something very dear was being taken away from me. Earlier, I had literally begged her not to go. But by then she had been influenced by others and had already made up her mind. While I did not want to hold her back and stall her progress, I knew this was something that wasn’t beneficial for either of us.'
'Yes, I indeed had other players to look after and Sindhu had made serious progress in the two years between 2012 and 2014. But I had never intended to neglect Saina. Maybe I wasn’t able to convey this to her,’ said Gopi. ‘Maybe Viren or Vimal or Prakash sir could have spoken to her. I don’t know why they did not. In fact, they encouraged her to leave Hyderabad. It is a mystery to me why Prakash sir has never said anything positive about me while I have always looked up to him as my role model,’ Gopi said with a sense of disappointment.
'It was one of the worst days of my life,’ Gopi added.
'Gopi had a job to do for India and he was doing it to the best of his abilities. Saina too had her career to look after and she decided that moving to Bengaluru was the best option for her at the time. You have to understand she was deeply hurt in doing what she did. She would break down every day for Gopi was the most important man in her life. But the feeling she got was that he wasn’t concerned about her anymore and she couldn’t deal with the pressure of what was happening,’ Kashyap said.
While it was a feeling of betrayal that forced Saina to move to Bengaluru, for Gopi it was a case of losing everything he had worked on for over a decade. He had lost his favourite student. Sindhu, however, benefited from this as Gopi started to invest in her. She grabbed the opportunity with both hands and started doing exactly what her coach wanted her to do.
The duo soon started preparing for the 2016 Rio Games with single-minded determination. Saina too wasn’t to be left behind. To her credit, she became the world’s number one player within three months of moving to Bengaluru and seemed to have sorted out her game. But with time, her training in Bengaluru lost steam and she started getting injured frequently.
With Sindhu again doing brilliantly to win the silver, Saina, the original superstar, seemed to have all but disappeared from people’s radar back home by then.
‘My wife is a perfect Haryanvi Jatni, if you know what I mean. She is just too headstrong and proud. She desperately wanted to go back to Gopi sir and say sorry. She needed him badly but she was just too stubborn to admit it and open up to him. She wasn’t willing to go back to a situation where she had nothing to show for herself. She had to complete her rehab, make a comeback and then go back to him having proven herself,’ Kashyap said with a chuckle.
It was at the Glasgow World Championships in 2017 that Saina finally spoke to Gopi. A bronze medal after coming back from her injury meant she had something to show for her efforts. That’s what prompted her to approach Gopi and ask him to take her back.
‘Yes, it was difficult. By this time Sindhu had become who she is now, but Saina is someone I can never say no to. It was complicated. I have always believed these two players are the best Indian badminton has seen in decades, and as their coach, I have equal responsibility for both of them. Once she said to me she wanted to come back, I didn’t have it in me to say no to her,’ said Gopi.
'I am convinced both Sindhu and Saina can win medals for India in Tokyo and that’s what I am determined to work towards in the next few months,’ said Gopi.
While one got India its first-ever Olympic medal in badminton, the other went a step further and changed the colour of the medal. If Saina is the first Indian to reach the world number one ranking, Sindhu is the first Indian to have won a world title, not to forget her five medals at the World Championships between 2013 and 2019. In this classic rivalry between two ace shuttlers, there is only one winner. India.
While it might be far-fetched to expect an Indian one-two (like the Games final at 2018 Gold Coast) in Tokyo, it is safe to say that Gopi and the two star women will give it all they have to make history. Saina will play with all her grit and determination while Sindhu will use all her physicality to negotiate the slow courts in Tokyo. And Gopi, for one final tournament perhaps, will be sitting in the coaches’ chair thinking this is his chance.
With inputs and excerpts with permission from Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta published by HarperCollins India.
Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games is available in offline and online stores.