How to tame a dragon: Coaches are overcoming the dominant Chinese badminton world

Once invincible Chinese badminton world is beginning to be breached by coaches and leading the pack is Fernando Rivas from Spain.

Written by Shivani Naik | Updated: July 24, 2016 5:34 pm
rio 2016, rio 2016 olympics, olympics 2016, olympics, rio olympics, caroline marin, caroline marin badminton, badminton olympics, olympics news, sports news Caroline Marin will be one of the favourites to win the gold medal at Rio Games. (Source: BadmintonPhoto)

The once invincible Chinese badminton world is beginning to be breached by coaches from around the world. Leading the pack is Fernando Rivas from Spain, a country with no badminton history. Shivani Naik talks to Rivas, who made Carolina Marin into a gold medal favourite, and records the rise of coaches from Taipei, Korea, and India who are dreaming big.

‘‘I was always the weird friend,’’ Fernando Rivas said last October on the sidelines of the Denmark Open Super Series. It was in response to what must have been the 13th attempt at wriggling out of this discreet dude’s mind, the precise reasons why he thought a Spanish girl could become a badminton World Champion. A dozen questions had been thrown at him before this one – circuitous, convoluted and candid – about the circumstances under which he, a 19-year-old coach at the time he started in Spain – a country with no history whatsoever in the sport, believed that he could take on the might of Asia and China specifically. ‘‘Neighbours had come knocking and asking my parents very solemnly if everything was alright. I had quit playing football, and started playing badminton. Back then in the late 80s, my parents didn’t know what this sport was,’’ he recalled.

Heading into Rio, badminton joins sailing and taekwondo for Spain as a distinct possibility for a gold medal in women’s singles through Carolina Marin. ‘‘We’ve been talking about this Olympics gold since she was 14. Of course any of the top 10 girls can win, but I can assure you when the big event comes, she’ll be ready for the world,’’ he had said in his close-lipped ominous way, a pronouncement that no longer seems weird to his neighbourhood pals, nor the greater shuttle world.

Indians see Marin from an opponents’ lens, as someone who routinely raises a red flag with her whippy left hand, stopping the home girl Saina Nehwal from winning the big titles; an All England and a World Championship, two stabs at the heart of Nehwal’s mighty aspirations in recent years. The Chinese are staring distinctly at a setback of not winning the women’s singles gold medal, the first in 20 years – a billion strong tradition challenged by Marin and Rivas from a country that started its badminton programme with a paltry USD 10,000 a decade ago with not more than 10 players. The weird, geeky boy who started studying the science of badminton as hobby in his late teens, has transformed into a torero in this bullfight that is badminton, turning Marin into his matador.

‘‘I remember him telling me in 2003-4 that he’ll make a World No 1,’’ former international Aravind Bhat recalls of his friend Rivas, who had invited him over for a spar to his Spanish club, and casually mentioned a boy and a girl who were earmarked to make that journey to the summit. The girl was Marin of course, spotted at age 13 – not for some technical brilliance but her temperament. ‘‘I saw she had a strong temper. And the way she moved on court and could control time on every shuttle. It was a gut instinct,’’ he recalled. Technique and footwork were worked on later.

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Rivas conceded he was never an excellent player himself. Badminton was introduced as a new sport in his school when he was 11. When his parents lunched with friends on Sundays, he’d gather a few friends and play on empty streets outdoors. From Monday through the week, the game would move indoors. He was a judo green belt, and dabbled at basketball, handball, indoor football and taekwondo — all mainstream sports, but also loved his studies.

‘‘I liked sitting for classes at University and listening to teachers speak. I picked notes from science, history, architecture that could help me in sport. Later I specialized in physiology, psychology, bio mechanics.’’ Last heard, he was pursuing his PhD in sport science with his thesis on ‘motor control and analysis.’

He had no knowledge of tactics or dedicated facilities and borrowed playing time on Tuesdays and Thursdays at indoor courts from basketball and handball coaches. He met Rafael Nadal at the Spanish tennis nationals once, and noted how the players’ lounge for a small meet had chefs cooking 5-star meals. ‘‘Tennis was way too professional like badminton was in China,’’ he said with a disbelieving laugh.

Here was a man determined to upturn a 100-year tradition of badminton in China, solely by acing science of the sport. ‘‘It’s about studying, innovation, studying more,’’ he explained. Still, that was China we were talking of. The country has won two of the three podium medals – gold always – for four straight Games since 2000. ‘‘I knew I was sitting in Spain, but I evolved a disrespect for China, in a good way. I’ve never accepted what’s taken for granted. China were the best at badminton. Ok. So what,’’ he explained.

It wasn’t naïve bravado. ‘‘They were a powerhouse, so obviously I had to beat them.’’ He knew what he was up against when they spoke ‘tradition.’ ‘‘People my grandparents’ age play badminton there. That’s popularity.’’ But Danish Peter Gade and Taufik Hidayat had been influential as contemporaries. The European resistance had come from the small country of tall people – Denmark, though Rivas hadn’t really watched Morten Frost and the rest. ‘‘We never had video tapes. But I would hear of Malaysia, Indonesia at Sudirman Cup and Thomas and Uber Cups.’’ There was nothing to go on, but one man’s defiant will to shake the world order.

He even admired Lin Dan for he evolved in the most non-Chinese of ways. ‘‘And when Saina started winning Super Series consistently, I was happy a non-Chinese could trouble them on a regular basis.’’ That ‘healthy disrespect’ of the Chinese that he had been marinating for a while was ready for a deep fry and sizzle, when Carolina Marin was unleashed on the world.

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The reason why the Chinese aren’t looking the overwhelming favourites this time around is the mounted charge on them from several directions, not just Marin. And starting with the surprise Top-5 entrant in rankings of the last year, Nozomi Okuhara. 5-foot-nothing, the zipping girl has rattled top players — becoming one herself in the process.

As Japan’s head coach Park Joo-Bong, the Korean legend, has put in place a system that suggests a Japanese dynasty could soon follow a Chinese one. ‘‘The Japs were always very quick. But they never had the finesse to win matches. Maybe Park Joo-bong has loosened them up a little and the girls are using their speed in a creative way,’’ Aparna Popat says of the new wave of Japanese that will definitely brim over, come Tokyo 2020.

Taipese Tai Tzu Ying was coached briefly by Chinese flick artiste Bao Chunlai in her early years, and Popat reckons the flair and strokes definitely came from somewhere in her developing years. Chinese girls are shepherded by Chen Jin, the former men’s singles champ with the robotic game and beastly strength. Jin is no Zhang Ning, the double Olympic women’s champ who guided them to gold-silver last edition. Jin has shown no evidence at big meets really of inspiring Xuerui Li and Yihan Wang to turn back years, but China is always about the system not the court-side coach.

Li Yongbo, the all-powerful Don Corleone, of China’s assembly line medal-system, is still around. And despite being well settled in his million-dollar coaching empire, the godfather coach is expected to take it upon himself to coax podium-winning performances out of Lin Dan and the Chinese women one final time.

Yet, the Asians still work within the traditional parameters of a system. And perhaps the only other case of a personal coach entrusted with channeling an ambition is Vimal Kumar’s role in helping Saina Nehwal attempt to win her second Olympic medal. ‘‘She’s happy training under him. And at this stage, given her experience, that’s all that matters,’’ Popat says. ‘‘She just needs someone to set the ball rolling, more of a mentor and to work on the psychological aspect of things, someone she trusts.’’

Given her many years on the circuit and consistency as well as access to technology, Nehwal of 2016 is different from Nehwal of 2012 – a calmer creature, also confident in her ability to figure out where she needs guidance. Vimal Kumar is a dedicated coach who can put in the hours dispensing personalized advice, read the game accurately to spell out the percentages during a match and allow the rapport to blend into instinct. Nehwal’s reached No 1 with him by her courtside, won her maiden World Championship medal she desperately coveted and gathered enough confidence to beat Chinese nemesis Yihan Wang.

Vimal’s not the cool, inscrutable cat with layers of technical nous in the face of intense pressure that Gopichand tends to be, but he’s had a big impact on the 26-year-old and extracted the best out of her game amidst a deluge of injuries.

Sindhu, though, will need all that plotting and fine detailing that Gopichand offers. It is not uncommon to see messages screamed and relayed in Telugu across to Sindhu from one of the support staff at tournaments where the national coach hasn’t travelled. A fantastic reader of the game, and in sync with his players, Gopichand is considered to be one of the modern-day astute tacticians who gets down to micro-managing things like what time the racquet should come down before and after striking, and if right leg should be a few inches righter while playing a certain shot. ‘‘He is in a different league,’’ Aravind Bhat says, adding, ‘‘and will tell players how much to turn for every stroke. And work for hours on how the foot should come down from toe to heel. Diet, supplements, every single minute thing he’ll look into.’’

Gopichand’s is also planned aggression – his fury too, well thought out, as against the more impulsive aggression that Vimal Kumar can at times give vent to. Vimal’s diffident way of functioning sits well with Saina who has always believed – maybe rightly so – that she can figure out things for herself, while Sindhu and Srikanth might need the occasional bollocking if they slump in training.

There’s a lot of brains invested in his coaching, and he’s not averse to technology to keep in tune with international badminton. Aparna Popat recalls the fundamental call that he took as a player which also moulded him as coach. ‘‘In India we are proud of our traditions and I’ve had coaches tell me to desperately hold onto our wristy game. But Gopi broke out of that pattern. He was willing to sacrifice the beautiful strokes because that was the need of the hour. He shattered the myth,’’ she says. It needed a shuttler to boldly drop the cloak of pretty badminton, and he did that.
‘‘You need a little bit of madness. If you keep looking back at past record books, you’ll never get anywhere,’’ Bhat says, putting both Gopichand and Fernando Rivas in the same bracket. It is that air of coolness that Rivas maintains while being around the storm that is Carolina Marin is what’s common to him and Gopichand, reckons Bhat.

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Rivas also came up at a time when Indonesian and Chinese coaches had started unshackling themselves from their home country’s secretive systems and started travelling to Europe in the late 90s. The fact that only the Mongloid race with their fast twitch fibres won at badminton, was also questioned given that the Danes always resisted the Asian charge, and even the Americans had been decent at the sport till the 1960s. European budgets might’ve started conservative at USD 10,000 but there was a stir in Germany and France as well as the British continuance in doubles to assert Europe’s stamp on the sport. Spain though, needed one man’s dream to hit their stride.

It’s charmingly amateur though — the game in Spain, still. ‘‘What’s fascinating though is how humble and grounded both Fernando and Carolina have remained despite her two World titles,’’ Bhat says. He recalls the finals day of the French Super Series — the title she won. Bhat would catch Rivas rushing Marin to wrap up the medal ceremony and leave for the airport to catch the booked flight.

‘‘I asked him she was World No 1, a world champion and had picked the title. Surely he could let her grab a bite, relax a tad, stretch a little and stay the night in Paris.’’ Rivas would wave it off and say that no one needed to waste an extra day’s hotel tariff, given the tight allowances permitted by the Spanish federation. ‘‘Now this was the World No 1 we were talking about, and I was staggered. But Fernando told me that right now Carolina is young and she can rough it out. When she gets a little older, she’ll need longer stretches, longer recovery time and that would be the time for her to celebrate titles. Not now.’’ There was simply lot of work to be done, and limited time and money to spare on basking in glory of a mere Super Series title.

A hard taskmaster, Fernando Rivas though likes to unwind by completing his PhD and playing the guitar. ‘‘If I’m not coaching, I like being around my family and walking the dogs with my girlfriend,’’ he had said. There was a rare vacation in Mexico for the couple the previous summer before the Olympic qualification madness began. The obsession with the gold medal at Rio has taken a toll on the Spanish coach.

The title at France had come after a loss at Denmark the previous week – where Chinese Xuerui Li won her first title in more than a year. Marin though, had gone down to PV Sindhu in a 75-minute marathon, Sindhu’s lethal power shots ending the Spaniard’s stay 15-21, 21-18, 21-17.

Fernando Rivas would sigh and drop his cool guard a tad, as he revealed, ‘‘I can’t stop thinking of badminton. When a situation or gameplan is not working out, I need to analyse more and more and more. It’s difficult to sleep.’’ No one said taking a bull by its horns was an easy job – even for the battle hardened Spaniard.

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