IT WAS around 2 pm when a shy-looking boy approached a referee to ask about his match and schedule. Asked his name, he replied, “Sai Vishnu”. He then walked across the six courts to his grandmother to collect the ‘entry receipt’.
The boy later took the court against Haryana’s Rehan Rathee, winning the Boys’ Under-17 qualification round (15-6, 15-10) at the 26th Smt. Krishna Khaitan Memorial All India Junior Ranking Badminton Tournament here on Tuesday.
It was only when the result was announced, and the boy’s name read out as Pullela Sai Vishnu, that the 30-odd players assembled at the courts realised he was the son of India’s chief national coach Pullela Gopichand. The 13-year-old was playing his second U-17 national ranking tournament, following his elder sister, Gayatri, into the junior shuttle circuit’s competitive courts.
The boy was later joined by his grandmother, Subbaravamma, and coach, Anil Kumar. He asked his grandmother for Rs 20 for a glass of juice, and another Rs 50 for bread-omelette.
“Even Gopi comes to me to ask for money,” said Subbaravamma, 63, who is accompanying her grandson to Chandigarh for the premier junior tournament. “We are a close-knit family and our lives revolve around badminton. I treat Gayatri and Vishnu the same way I treated Gopi in his younger days.”
While Gayatri is already making a mark in the national and international circuit, having reached the pre-quarter-finals in last month’s World Junior Badminton Championship in Indonesia, this is Vishnu’s second meet at the U-17 level, after Chennai where he lost in the second round.
The youngster has won three sub-junior ranking tournaments in Jaipur, Goa and Tirupur in the U-15 doubles category in the last three months, pairing up with Pranav Rao Gandham to climb to the top spot in India’s U-15 doubles rankings.
Last year, the pair finished as the runners-up in the U-13 doubles category in the 30th Sub-Junior National Badminton Championship, after winning the U-13 doubles title in the All India Ranking Tournament in Gulbarga, where Vishnu also reached the semi-finals in singles. The pair also won in Patna and two titles in Hyderabad last year.
With his title wins coming in doubles, Subbaravamma is reminded of the career-threatening injury Gopichand suffered in 1994 nationals while playing a doubles match. “That may happen to anybody. Not only to Gopi, but whoever is playing sports. It was a very bad injury and nobody thought Gopi would make a comeback. But Gopi would always tell me, ‘Amma I will come back and win again’. I still cry when I hear about that. Two days back, somebody came to the academy and mentioned Dr Ashok Rajgopal, who operated on him. And that made me cry. After the injury, I started travelling with Gopi as I could not sit at home worrying about him. But we have never stopped Vishnu or Gayatri from playing doubles. Till they are 17 or 19, they can play both singles and doubles, and after that, depending on the coaches’ consultation, they will choose,” she said.
At their home in Hyderabad, the day begins at 4 am for Gopichand and his wife, P V V Lakshmi, when they start preparations at the academy. Gayatri and Vishnu begin training at 5 am, and Subbaravamma joins the academy work at 8 am.
With Gopichand often travelling with the team, apart from training senior players like P V Sindhu and Srikanth at the academy, the children don’t get to spend much time with their father at the training base.
“Gopi started at the age of 11, but badminton became an obvious choice for them. Their parents are spending more time on court than at home, and Gopi is not able to spend much time with them. It is a problem for them, and a 100 percent disadvantage. When Gopi is free, he usually wants to play other sports with them or watches movies with them at home. He says let them enjoy the sport. My husband is the one who follows their matches,” said Subbaravamma. Her husband, Pullela S C Bose, is a retired banker.
Vishnu added that he gets to play practice matches against Gayatri on Wednesdays and Fridays. “I have watched some videos of my father on YouTube when he won the All England Open. Although he never talks about it, I watch the videos whenever I am free. Gayatri and I play against each other twice a week, and currently, she wins 70 percent of the matches. I tell her I will win more in the future,” he said, adding, with a laugh, “playing mixed doubles with her is a ‘no’ from my side.”
“I always tell them that they have to play mixed doubles. He says he will never play,” said Subbaravamma, adding, “But they will have to if Gopi says so… they understand that these are the years of struggle and learning for them.” Both Gayatri and Vishnu started playing when they were eight years old.
Recalling the time when Gopichand and his elder brother Pullela Raja Shekhar started badminton, Subbaravamma said the former initially played cricket. “He would play gully cricket and break window panes in our street. Initially, we wanted them to play tennis but it was very expensive. My sister was a badminton player and we decided to send Gopi and Raja Shekhar for badminton,” she said.
Raja Shekhar later committed to electronic engineering and settled in the United States. “He still follows badminton and reads about it on the internet,” said Subbaravamma.
Coach Anil Kumar, who has been training Vishnu for the last five years, said: “We wanted him to play in the U-17 category this year. His strength has been the deceptive shots, which he’s worked on over the last two years. He lacked some control earlier, but he’s getting better now.”