Last month when PV Sindhu’s South Korean coach Park Tae Sang boarded the flight for Tokyo Games, he was a social media nobody with a mere 328 Instagram followers. Within days of Sindhu winning the historic bronze, Park’s phone had a notification overload.
“Oh, it’s crazy, crazy, crazy! Just a second,” he says before pulling out his phone to show the current count of close to 18,000, majority of them being Indians. So used to seeing national coach P Gopichand on the sidelines for significant games, India wanted to know about the calm coach with a serene smile.
The new-found fame in a foreign land has come at a cost and is a result of a tough decision he took. Taking up this pandemic-time assignment meant Park has been away from his young family for a long time.
“My 4-year-old daughter (Soyu) would call me every day and say, ‘Papa when are you coming home? I felt very sad at times. After the pandemic, it was very tough for me and Sindhu. For almost two months we could not practice. But as soon as the cases went a little down we started practice and I decided to not go to Korea because it would further affect her training,” he says.
“Since last February I have met my family for 13 days. One-three, not three-zero,” says the 42-year-old coach.
Before he landed in India, Park had to take a major call. In retrospect he feels it was one of the best decisions he has taken.
After resigning as South Korea’s national coach, Park received a call from his alma mater, Dongeui University, to train juniors. But that was also the time he got an unexpected text message from the Indians to train the men’s singles players.
Park knew it would be a demanding job but he had an unfulfilled dream that the comfortable university job close to home would not fulfil — winning an Olympic medal. Adjusting to India too took some time. Initially, Park was staying at a Korean guest house in Hyderabad and found food suited his taste buds. But since they shut shop during the pandemic, Park had to rent an apartment and do his own cooking.
“I miss Korean food. But I like Indian food too. Butter chicken, stir-fried chicken, tandoori chicken, paneer, dosa and lassi drink are my favourites.”
Even before he joined Indian badminton, Park knew what he was signing for. As a player, Park, a 2002 Asian Games gold medallist, missed out on a bronze in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
As a coach two of his students faltered at the quarterfinals of the mega event. India was his chance at redemption. “This is a dream come true for me. I cried a little bit when Sindhu won. Just a little bit. When I was a player I lost in the quarterfinals at the Athens Olympics. After that I switched to coaching my two women’s singles players from Korea but they lost in quarterfinals,” says Park.
But dreams of Olympic proportions take a lot of effort.
Shoring up defence
And in Sindhu’s case, team effort. Park had observed the Rio silver medallist’s game closely and felt her defence needed massive improvement to stand any chance of winning consecutive medals.
It is no secret that Sindhu has a very strong attack. With a lot of tournaments cancelled in the run-up to the Olympics, Park had a lot of time to focus on tightening her defense.
“Sindhu had this habit of making the shuttle contact very low. I always told her if she made contact one centimetre higher that would mean the opponent would have to retrieve a centimetre lower.
“It’s important to catch more height. We would sometimes get two or three men’s singles players to hit drop shots at Sindhu and I would ask her to return it from a higher position. It allows you to finish off the point in the next shot. I teach the juniors the same thing, it is very very important,” explains the master tactician, almost ready to jump off his seat to show it in action.
Although Sindhu has shown a “200 per cent improvement” in her defence since the Worlds she was outwitted by the deceptive Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei in the semifinals. “Her defence against Tai Tzu was not good enough so there was no connect or attack. I told her you have to sometimes do a deceptive drop shot when in such a position. The same as what Tai Tzu does,” says coach Park.
Although things did not go as per plan against world-class Tai Tzu, Park says the journey with his diligent student will continue. He is struggling with English words to convey Sindhu’s eagerness to train. After a point he gives up, he reaches for the phone and looks for google translation app. His fingers runs on the keys and he looks up with a smile as he holds up the phone. “She is greedy about badminton” – flashes on the screen and Park gives a nod.