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One coach shuttle express

World Championships was what Gopichand had dreamt of for the last ten years of his coaching.

Written by Shivani Naik |
August 18, 2013 1:25:20 am

Pullela Gopichand’s wards are increasingly reaching weekend rounds of tournaments,which makes it impossible for the national coach to be by different courts simultaneously. What should have been a pleasant headache is turning into a challenge,writes Shivani Naik.

“At times there is so much demand from players that he sits in their corner,that we joke that we should hire Rajinikanth,because only Rajini Sir can create a number of clones.”

— Maqdoom Ahmed,Gopichand Academy,Hyderabad manager,on Pullela Gopichand.

The last time this thought of morphing into Rajini crossed Gopichand’s mind was in the late ’80s. A hot-headed teenager back then,Gopi was swayed so much by Thalaivar’s superstardom and desi Super Man wonder-tricks that he wanted a moustache of his own.

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Lately though — years after the Rajini fetish has subsided for Gopichand and the Boss has gone sci-fi,and moush-free with Enthiran’s Chitti robot — those around the national badminton coach jest about how they wish the Tamil movie superstar could conjure a spell that would clone Gopichand.

Last Friday’s line-up at the World Championships was what India’s national badminton coach Gopichand had dreamt of and strived towards for the last ten years of his coaching.

Three of his wards — P Kashyap,Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu — were due to feature in the quarterfinals at Guangzhou,an unprecedented number of Indians in contention. What should’ve been smugly satisfying,in fact,turned out to be a hugely stressful day for the Indian coach,with only Sindhu’s late win and assured medal offsetting the disappointment of Kashyap and Saina’s near-simultaneous losses on adjacent courts.

Three matches at the highest level of play demanded Gopichand’s absolute attention that day,but the 40-year-old was left stranded on the sidelines,as he rushed between two courts and eventually had to bite back the disappointment of watching both Kashyap and Saina go down,the former from the brink of a medal.

The shuffling was a tad too tough even for the master juggler of Indian badminton,known for his efficient multi-tasking. On days like that,you want the Rajini replication from the robot-movie to turn from reel to real.

“There’s a lot of strain,and living each match with each of the players takes a lot out of you,” Gopichand admitted after Sindhu’s semifinal,when India clinched a historic women’s singles medal,though the coach believes it could have easily been at least one more. He’s helped bring badminton to a level where Indians are constantly in contention on weekends of big tournaments. However,as the numbers hitch up,the national coach will be called upon to split his attention even further.

“Sometimes it’s fine,but sometimes it gets too much. It’s good they’re coming out in big numbers,but it also means I have to push myself and I’m bound to get pulled in different directions. Don’t know how long it will last like this,” he said after returning from a draining championship.

Kashyap had been the first to notice the potential trouble that day,sensing the coach’s dilemma as soon as he looked up the schedule after the pre-quarters. “As soon as I saw the schedule,I’d told Gopi it would be very tough for him. We were very unlucky it was at the same time,and I don’t know what to say about such situations. We know he’s trying to help all of us,but unfortunately I got points when he was around in the first set,and then when he left for Saina’s match,I faltered,” says Kashyap,who lost 16-21,22-20,21-15 to Chinese World No 3 Pengyu Du. “There’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Strategy is key

At the highest levels — especially for matches between players ranked in the No 1-15 bracket,with form and fitness equal — minute tweaks in strategy can prove to be all-important. “Tactically,it’s easier for someone watching from outside to see the situation. In pressure points,even top players make errors. It could be very simple things. Not that a player doesn’t know,but sometimes in that moment,a coach can simply tell you that you are making similar mistakes repeatedly,and it’s that slight input that matters,” he says.

For the last week,Kashyap has been replaying his quarterfinal match in his mind,kicking himself for not pouncing on the match-point he held,and the thoughts dominated his flight back from China. “I feel depressed. I was playing the best badminton of my career,and I came this close to a medal and I’ll kick myself for the missed chance,” the 26-year-old says.

Match-point up in the decider,Kashyap played a crosscourt drop,instead of the straight tosses he’d been hitting,and Du took a punt on a return,which Kashyap erred in leaving. “Wrong,wrong call on my part to botch that match-point and the one later,” he rues.

In an earlier round,a small tip-off from Gopichand had helped Kashyap get past the higher-ranked Yun Hu. “I was 14-8 up against Yun,but he’d caught up to 15-all. Gopi told me I was playing too much at the net,and playing into his hands. It was a simple thing,but a coach notices these things better than the player,” he says.

“Against the Chinese,I knew he would be watching,but it must’ve been crazy for him to be there for both Saina and me. Unluckily,we both lost,” he said.

Tending to highly personalised training programmes of his dozen charges (playing at the highest level) at the academy,Gopichand is not unaccustomed to multi-strategising. But at the highest level of competition and with several youngsters coveting his attention,Gopi will need back-ups in the future,not to mention coaching brains with equal tactical acumen.

For the moment,he is rallying behind Nehwal,who suffered a miserable loss,and backing his ward to bounce back. “She was very unwell from a stomach upset 3-4 days back,and though she recovered,she didn’t have enough energy during her quarterfinals. She wanted to push herself in the quarters,but simply couldn’t. Game-wise she was fine. She hasn’t faced so many defeats at a tournament ever in her life so it will be tough for her. But she’s too much of a class player to not fight back from this,” he assured.

When the IBL marquee clash between Nehwal and Sindhu took off,Gopichand pithily summed it up saying it wasn’t about ‘Saina or Sindhu’ anymore,but a happy ‘Saina and Sindhu’ situation.

Back at the academy too —and more so when he packs in his 16-hr (4.30 am-8.30 pm) daily rigours into 24 hours — the clamour for Gopi’s attention is enormous. His attention to detail,tending to every shuttler’s need,is legendary,and the base for Sindhu’s spectacular rise was built even as Nehwal was battling in London,gunning for an Olympic medal.

Johnson,strength and recovery expert,formerly with the Indian athletic team,recalls the precise brief handed to him when he started working with Sindhu. “If Gopichand Academy is an army,then Gopichand sir is like our general. He sees the big picture.

“So when I work with an athlete for recovery or strength training,it isn’t a regular workout but very specific according to what he wants. He wanted to train Sindhu to be able to pick shots in certain areas but he knew that her knees which were injury prone had to be strengthened first. So my job was to increase her leg strength. Once that was done,he was able to increase the intensity of her training new ways,” he says.

Too much to do

Gopi’s contemporary Aparna Popat believes that the head coach is facing an unprecedented challenge,managing his wards on the global stage. “We never thought such a day would come when we’d have so many players doing well. It is undoubtedly a challenge,but he is very well aware of the demands of his role,and will soon figure out the best way moving forward. India will be happy if such occasions come often enough,but we need to understand that Gopi is an individual himself and there’s only so much he can do,” she says.

She also believes that a coach’s responsibility goes far beyond sitting in the player’s corner for every match. “It’s exhausting to produce players of that stature. It’ll take a lot out of him. Coaching is like raising a child. For example,Gopi would know about every step Nehwal or Sindhu or Kashyap would take,what each of them is feeling like on that day. As coach,you can’t switch on and switch off. For a player,it is turning up for a two-hour training session,for a coach it’s not a 9-to-5 job. He needs to know what each of them needs to work on,and in matches,look out for conditions,opponents,ways to motivate players,find newer techniques.”

A coach might have dozens of charges,but he ends up being the sole figure that his wards look up to. There are all the egoes and temperaments to balance and handle. “Certain players who outshine others are special in terms of discipline,talent and attitude. They need to be treated specially and it’s a tightrope for coaches,” Popat says.

“Because if you try being democratic about this,for the sake of being equal,nobody’ll be shining in the end.” The World Championships quarters were an unprecedented situation,and Popat believes that Kashyap might have lost the match,but had shown great maturity in accepting the dilemma. “The fact that you need a coach means that when he’s not present is a change from the norm. It’s difficult to adjust to. But I believe it was decided that Gopi would need to shuttle between the two. But Kashyap was brave and fought on,” she says.

While the obvious suggestion would be for Gopichand to get a second line of assistants,Popat says that it will take a while for it to become functional. “He will eventually need to go for assistant coaches,if and when numbers increase. The badminton association is getting seriously started with its coaches’ clinics,but it’ll take a while to get more people as astute as Gopi,” she says. Till then,Indian shuttlers will keep summoning Rajini’s superpowers,wishing their lone coach could be cloned.

Inputs: Jonathan Selvaraj

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