To call the spat between India’s most successful coach and its greatest doubles player an ego clash is too simplistic.
It’s an old feud with several layers and many sub-plots, says Shivani Naik
“She has definitely been India’s best performing doubles player. She’s good.” This was Pullela Gopichand, mid-last week, mid-conversation, stressing on Jwala Gutta’s credentials, in the middle of fire-fighting a barrage of accusations thrown at him by her and partner Ashwini Ponappa. His normally unflappable voice was severely strained, attempting to put across a rebuttal to the charge that he had denied India’s most recognised doubles players funding under the Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS), and it ended with the words: “I won’t win this battle no matter what I say or do.”
His detailed defense had started stating that Jwala and Ashwini had in fact been inducted into the scheme in the fresh set of inclusions, alongside the promising men’s doubles pairing of Sumeet Reddy and Manu Attri, though Gopichand, an important member of the TOPS selection committee – but not its spokesperson, was not authorised to make the announcement.
He had tried clearing the air by stating that he had put forward their names in both prior meetings, but the committee had insisted on monitoring their performance. As soon as Jwala-Ashwini hit their ranking of No 13 in the world, a career-high, and a Malaysian national doubles coach had been identified, the quartet was on their way to getting into the scheme, which has courted plenty of controversy already for both its inclusions and omissions. A complete set-up and separate camp for doubles with sparring partners and a dedicated coach was to be put in place with just over a year to go for the Rio Olympics.
In the background, the sniping and shielding would continue unabated. While raking up the contentious conflict of interest – Gopichand runs his academy at Hyderabad which doubles as a national camp on account of having the best facilities in India – Jwala and Ashwini would be scathing and relentless. The national coach – credited with unprecedented success in singles, but with glaring failures in propping up India’s dismal doubles – would finally say his piece: “I’ve always given them whatever they’ve asked for, sent them to all the tournaments they wished to go for. If they’ve not asked for something, I don’t know how to respond to that. But whatever was in my hand, I’ve tried to do.”
He would also wonder aloud how the two continued to expect him to help them, while all the time Jwala was launching personal attacks on him.
Jwala Gutta and P Gopichand share a frosty equation that everyone in the badminton community – and now India – is acutely aware of. It would be ridiculously comical (given it involves two grown-ups) if it wasn’t dragging Indian badminton down.
The sum total of it is that at different times, and in public, they don’t talk to each other. The complexity of this fight is hinged on that simple act of churlishness.
Ever since they first went head-to-head in 2007 (more on that, later), tiffing in public spats, TV screens have magnified this non-conversation. As national coach, Gopichand would walk upto Jwala and her partner (earlier V Diju, now Ponappa), to drill strategy into their ears, and Jwala would keep sipping from a bottle defiantly and look away with her face pasted with a frown. She would also defiantly win matches, pulling off some outrageous victories with her outstanding net-play – with or without the coach courtside – and then wait for the pat on the back.
The coach – never given to hyperbole when threadbaring some of his favourite charge’s famous wins – would keep mum, denying Jwala in her opinion the “rightful acknowledgment for her performances.” Jwala would go toe-to-toe with Saina Nehwal into Top 10 rankings (in mixed doubles partnering V Diju), win Commonwealth Games gold in 2010 with Ashwini and even a World Championship bronze, a first for Indian women – but never receive the standing ovations. The festering of a sense of discrimination – sometimes perceived, at times real – against doubles, would grow even as Jwala would scream and shout about preferential treatment for singles players.
Gopichand would respond to each of these darts with deafening silence bordering on – or interpreted as – indifference.
Meanwhile, Gopichand’s brood of singles champs would grow, clamouring for his attention, to a point where even a Saina Nehwal would hop over to Bangalore where she got adequate, personalised heed. The coach would go to any length to avoid open confrontation knowing he would need to work with his top doubles pairing in the same team. When Jwala decided to train at coach Arif’s academy, shuttles would be sent across from his personal account.
In 2007, the BAI would aim at putting together a national camp – as is practiced everywhere from Denmark to China to Malaysia and Korea, getting the core group to train under the same roof. Gopichand would insist on extended training camps instead of extensive travel and competition, hoping he’d raise the Indian shuttlers’ pitiable fitness levels. He’d succeed with the singles and mostly the juniors – a bunch of greenhorns who he had groomed from their pre-teens – but run into resistance from the seniors who wouldn’t immediately buy into his chant of fitness-for-success. Jwala would emerge at the forefront of this rebellion.
“Top BAI officials, including renowned former players insisted on the camp and were involved in the collective decision. But Jwala targeted the coach personally and held him responsible,” an official recalls. Gopichand would choose silence.
By the time the Commonwealth Games fetched up, Jwala-Ashwini would train briefly at the Hyderabad academy, ramp up their game, strike a great working-relationship with Indonesian doubles tactician Edwin and march to gold. The Siri Fort would go up in a frenzy as Jwala-Ashwini would equal the England contingent’s gold medal count at 37, and hit the crescendo when Saina Nehwal would help India go one better to Gold No 38 as India cornered the second place ahead of England in the medal standings. “Thank you Gopi bhaiyya” was heard from both sets of girls immediately after, but Nehwal would go onto become India’s sweetheart, even as Jwala struggled to keep pace in rankings and title wins on the circuit. The coach would show a hint of gush talking of Nehwal’s wins, but the doubles pairing would be left behind with the coach giving cursory quotes of appreciation when they’d clinch the Worlds bronze, as opposed to the rich odes that Jwala believed she deserved. Resentment brewed, and slights – imagined or otherwise – piled on.
2012 London Games – both warring parties, for once, agree on: referring to it as a “fiasco.” Even as Saina Nehwal was making history, a match fixing leading to disqualification of top-ranked teams in women’s doubles (a draw rigging, basically) had triggered a sequence of events that Jwala believes cost her a medal. Gopichand is fervent in setting the record straight. “They think I did not inform the officials about the Indians ranking points. But I had no role to play in them being denied. I went there and sent an official letter to the chief referee. I did all I could,” he requests to be heard. Back then, he wouldn’t be distracted from Nehwal’s historic first bronze for India in badminton, to sit the pair down and clear the air. The silence would push Jwala to the darkest corners of mistrust.
At the 2013 Indian Badminton League auctions, when the franchise owners would reduce base price of doubles pairings, Jwala would point finger straight at Gopichand. “It was a collective decision taken by the majority. Owners said it was logical that money spent be dependent on number of matches won. Equal amount for the paired event would cost the owners double. It was basic economics. It was not Saina vs Jwala, but a singles vs doubles rationalisation,” a team official present at the meeting which decided on the matter, said.
A disciplinary ban on Jwala thereafter, with some stuffy federation officers saying they “didn’t like her attitude” was both unfair and reeking of prejudice. “But it was the administrators, not the coach who took that call,” says an insider. In Jwala’s mind though, the villain was crystallised as Pullela Gopichand.
There’s murmurs about the Jwala-Gopichand tussle having undertones of political rivalry weaving deep through the maze of Hyderabad’s politics – the two are also distantly related. Jwala would even add her two-bit in the Bombay High Court case supporting Prajakta Sawant, another player not willing to grit it out at the national camp; the statement in a court of law alienating Gopichand further.
The national coach’s apparent lack of proactive approach in figuring out why India’s doubles continues to whimper though, is always baffling. As such, Jwala-Ashwini’s ire was focussed on why Guru Sai Dutt, an earnest, hardworking but modestly successful shuttler from Gopichand’s academy – was cleared for funding even while they weren’t. Gopichand’s rationale that any two of the top four men’s singles players could eventually qualify thereby including Guru – is a leap of faith, and Jwala was in no mood to leap or listen.
She would instead vault across to North America – badminton’s back of beyond – and string together two finals in June including a title victory at lowly Canada Open. Putting this win into context becomes necessary, as it was on the back of this title, that Jwala and Ashwini would fire their latest salvo with the TOPS lists still in a flux.
The Canada Open is a newbie Grand Prix tournament, which puts it in the bracket of 27th-35th in importance on the international circuit. Their opponents in the finals were Dutch Eefje Muskens and Selena Piek, not the most formidable of pairings, though Jwala-Ashwini had lost in early rounds to them during their slump last season. Top Asian combinations don’t often travel to US and Canada collecting points, and though a title victory is a title victory (they also made the finals in the US a week before), nothing could rationally explain the hullabaloo that erupted on Twitter – that slightly distorted mirror of reality that’s all the rage in today’s times.
The authentic twitter handles of the President of India, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi’s Office, a clutch of Chief Ministers, Bollywood celebrities and diehards got fidgety-fingered within minutes of the triumph, rolling out commendations. Nothing wrong with this new socially networked India being pleased with a sporting title, but when a Canada Open becomes the basis of supreme claims of global achievement, and is seen as the trigger for inclusion in the TOPS scheme, you begin to wonder if a farce is being played out here.
“To be honest, their performances have not been upto the mark these last two years. Their World Championship bronze (2011) and CWG gold in 2010 were brilliant, but since then it isn’t exactly world-beating stuff,” says a former player, who finds it implausible that Gopichand would’ve intentionally left out their names from the TOPS meetings knowing they were India’s best bets by a distance to qualify for Rio. “The performances weren’t upto the mark till the last meeting in October-November,” a committee member says.
Bronze at Asian Championships, silver at CWG and decent show at Uber Cup are better than what many other TOPS beneficiaries can claim. But among Indian shuttlers and before they garnered a clutch of points in America, their performances though were not significantly better than Guru Sai Dutt’s.
At Mumbai’s Tata Open in December 2013, they even lost to Sikki Reddy-Pradnya Gadre, nowhere in the class of Jwala-Ashwini, such was the rustiness. Seven first-round exits in international meets, 13 in the second round, a couple of quarters at GP Golds, the Indian pairing at their all-time highest ranking of No 13, has never reached the quarters of a Super Series. Nehwal has nine of those titles. “Being a World No 6, and winning titles consistently are two different things. Her Worlds medal was great, but winning over a dozen titles is what sets Saina apart. Claiming that both are equal is just wrong,” says another player.
The comparison with Nehwal might well have prodded Jwala into raising her own game, but it is gnarled logic to demand that sponsors and fans raise her to the same pedestal. “Even Srikanth is nowhere close to Saina, though they may both be No 3. It took Mary Kom 5 World championships and an Olympic medal to command the sponsorship that she does now. In such a scenario, it’s unfair to say the coach is not helping her get sponsors. No doubt Jwala, Ashwini are trailblazers, but is that enough to demand the same things as Saina, saying doubles is ignored? It’s time to stop pretending that their performances are even,” he adds.
The hankering to raise India’s doubles standards is gaining in decibel and Jwala is best-placed to change that script. But, screaming discrimination vis-a-vis singles, is hardly the way forward. Finding a foreign doubles specialist coach has been nightmarishly difficult, with even Malaysian Tan Her not being released by his home federation yet. “It’s not easy, because national federations hold tightly onto their top coaches. They need to fit into our budgets,” president BAI Akhilesh Dasgupta, says.
In fact, Jwala was asked to offer her suggestions on whom she wanted appointed. No specifics were forthcoming. Dasgupta has even spoken to Jwala about taking charge of a dedicated doubles academy either at Delhi or Lucknow after she hangs her boots. About 8-9 courts are to come up at the Gopichand academy where the doubles camp will be set up, with no clashing with the singles programme, Dasgupta insists.
“In the past I’ve told her she’s free to train wherever she wants to. Hyderabad? I was OK. Bangalore? I was OK. I couldn’t even say that they had to compulsorily train together at one place either of the two cities, because I’d be called authoritarian,” Gopichand says.
It goes against every rational instinct of intelligence that a doubles pair should train at two different centres, but Gopichand relaxed the rules because he wanted to avoid conflict. “I think he’s just tried to avoid confrontation as much as possible with Jwala all these years, by saying do what you want. Trying to keep peace, but it’s backfired,” a player who’s competed alongside both adds.
Avoiding conflict also included not stating the blatant obvious: Jwala’s lack of fitness. “Jwala would be one of the best players in the world, if she was fitter,” former team-mate Arvind Bhat says.
Stationed at the net, with an innate knowledge of angles and tactical sense, Jwala Gutta is badminton’s Leander Paes. In possession of one of the best net-games in the world where her racquet finds piercing openings even as she browbeats opponents with her aggression. But no one in Indian badminton can work up the courage to tell the 31-year-old that she ought to lose 10 kg at least, so she can max her potential. It is tough to recall the last time they beat a Top-3 combine, and it is apparent to anyone who bothers to see that Jwala has cost the pair a very high number of matches owing to her poor fitness in the third game.
Calling it an ego clash would be simplistic given that the long history of bitterness has always distracted from the fact that the two come from two ends of the training spectrum. Gopichand, with his ardent and proven belief that faltering fitness tends to be Indians’ bane on the international stage and Jwala who’s always relied on her natural talent. A heart-felt open letter by sister Insi might state otherwise, but Jwala’s not the most regular at practice.
“I am allowed to do anything as long as I train hard and show the results. As soon as my training dips and I lose, I’ll get it from Gopi bhaiyya,” Parupalli Kashyap recently said, talking about the short unscheduled holiday he was permitted soon after upsetting world No 1 Chen Long at Malaysia.
“It’s all about training for him,” Bhat says. “It’s not about bias. He’ll never take calls on someone who’s not training under him because he doesn’t see you training, and can’t vouch for your form or fitness. With Saina, he gets updates from Vimal,” he adds. No surprise that though he might’ve proposed the duo’s names to the TOPS committee, he couldn’t stick his head out and assure them that the two were fit as a fiddle to aim for the medal. As soon as the two finals surfaced, the committee was convinced.
The spat has run for as long as the Paes-Bhupathi feud now, and like the two tennis greats, badminton’s two legends – India’s most successful coach and its greatest doubles player, will hope that the scars of this fracas don’t stick to their legacy. Because Gopichand knows Jwala is a good player, and that is all that Jwala needs to know. In the larger scheme of things, TOPS and its token lakhs are just a top-up to that base of mutual respect and professionalism they’d need to work on.