It wasn’t merely because he thought colas were rubbish. But life had this habit of giving Pullela Gopichand plenty of lemons, squeezing which he made himself one nice tall jar of lemonade. That would be his 2001 All England title.
He knew he had a lid on the Chinese players of his times (more on the Chen Hong final later). The most bitter, tart aftertaste that Gopichand was feeling at the start of the century came from losing to arch nemesis Peter Hoeg Gade, the then Danish World No 1.
So, the greatest victory that the Indian secured at the All England actually came on Saturday, a day before Indians officially decided to get excited about badminton that was bringing back the cherished title for the first time since 1980.
In the immediate faceoff prior to their semi-final at All England, at the Thomas Cup in 2000, Gopichand had lost 15-1, 15-6 to Gade – a crushing loss that had made him salty about losing to this particular opponent. Two straight-game losses in Denmark in 1997 and the Swiss Open in 1998 had preceded. But something about the Swiss capitulation particularly pushed Gopichand to obsessively focus on weight training – the strengthening ethos (“only a strong body can build a strong mind,” he reckons) that guides his coaching even now.
“Honestly after the Olympics loss, I had lost all hope. I had no expectations. It had taken me months to come out of the Olympics disappointment. So at the 2001 All England, I just kept busy with the routine. Against Peter Gade in the semis, I just wanted to check if I could crack it,” he remembers. He was genuinely curious about whether he could beat Gade and it ended up in what can easily be a standalone classic, not even needing the champagne validation of the All England crown. It was lemonade revenge, served ice cold.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Like a board-topper chuckling about a geography Unit Test he flunked years earlier, Gopichand recalls the reputation Indians were tagged with at the All England circa 2001. “Look, All England was a big thing, even comparable to Olympics. When Prakash Sir won it, that was a big deal. But in the next 20 years, no one thought Indians could win at Birmingham. In fact, the fastest matches at the arena used to be ours.”
Gopichand scored his first opening-round win in 1993, and beat the high-statured Allan Budi Kusuma in three games in 1997. But the steep fall in Indian standards post Padukone’s exploits looked glaring in the absence of a contender who could make a mark internationally. In two decades, Indians at All England were at best making up first-round numbers.
Even shuttles mocked Indians. “We used to be literally surprised by how the foreign shuttle moved. The difference between Indian and international shuttles was huge. Idhar maare toh udhar jaata tha (hit it one way and it will go another),” he remembers.
Funding for badminton was very limited. “We would train in Hyderabad, go to Delhi to fly out from there and process the visa. And stay at the Railways stadium.” All the enthusiasm and ingenuity were spent in simply reaching All England.
Gopichand remembers a year when funding completely vanished – even for the 2-3 annual international meets which were approved. Dipankar Bhattacharjee was a fellow sufferer. Money was assembled with the help of an Air India scholarship, colleagues collected Rs 20,000 to go with his Rs 5,000 savings. And his mother brought in Rs 10,000 from a heart-breaking mortgage.
The first day in Delhi was spent shopping for warm clothes. “We bought track pants and sweaters at Paharganj.”
There’s the oft-told tale about how in trying to budget his stay – official hotel cost 35 pounds, a cheaper alternative came at 20 pounds, but three stations away from where the official shuttle bus would drop them off. Once when his match got pushed from 10.15 pm to 10.45 pm and with public transport in Birmingham shutting at midnight, the famished duo walked several miles in extremely inadequate clothing and ended up sleeping at 2.30 am.
“I ended up winning the match the next day. But by evening, the right quadricep extensor was a mess and the body went into a cramp,” he recalls. With no physio in his corner to soothe down the supporting hamstring, the quads snapped. “In front of my eyes,” he recalls the horror. “The Japanese physio took a look at the leg on the side.” He would confirm his worst fears.
Eventually Dipankar and him would head to France, waiting for the next tournament, taken in by a kind Pakistani family, giving him time to heal the leg.
But All England wasn’t just about the logistical nightmares of surviving on a tight budget – something that present day shuttlers don’t quite ever have to face, given how support pours in from government and non-profits now. But that apart, the conditions needed taming even for someone who might’ve been well looked after.
#TheBridgeRewind 📽️ | “Matchpoint, It’s long, Pullela Gopichand is All England Champion”
Gopichand had claimed the All England Championship in 2001, more than two decades after Prakash Padukone became the first Indian to achieve the feat in 1980.
— The Bridge (@TheBridge_IN) March 5, 2019
“Playing at that arena where Prakash Sir had won was like trying to fulfill a dream. But somewhere I realised, the All England venue is actually a big stadium and that makes a difference in badminton. The conditions were tougher – 15 point rally system, and the ground was concrete.”
The wretchedness of the concrete surface needed getting used to, and Gopichand went across the Channel and camped in Germany between 1997-99 to prepare. “I had a very good Chinese coach, Su Yan, at the club there, and I stayed with a nice family. The environment was very good and I started thinking about things like post-match meals. Every year for three months, the family funded my tournaments – Dutch, German and Swiss where I could travel by road,” he recalls.
With time available now to focus on sport, he actually dedicated attention to thinking about the sport, yoga, having enough shuttles and food. At the Swiss Open, came the thrashing from Peter Gade. “My knees were hurting, the weather was cold. The All England was again on concrete.” A loss followed. Except, this time he didn’t go to Germany, but headed to Bangalore to prepare for the Olympics.
At Sydney, Gopichand felt stronger – a result of training hard on the physicality post the Gade loss, under Ganguly Prasad and Guru Prasad. Though it was a concrete surface again, Gopichand felt confident that he could beat opponents on fitness as his endurance was comfortable. “But the surface took its toll. The back was a real mess and the knee and calf were sore,” he remembers the start of his dreams dismembering. He took a couple of massages but ended up with a golf-ball sized swelling wondering what was worse – the panic or pain.
“I didn’t know what hit me. I took another Brufen. By the time I played Hendrawan (they are 2-1 career head to head), I had fever and there were shocks going up my body every time I landed from a high smash.”
Somewhere along the way, trying to cope with the trauma of a breaking body, Gopichand discovered ice baths – that recovery technique that elite athletes with bespoke physio-trainers take for granted today but which was still a revelation for an Indian negotiating scientific advances in sport back then.
“I read it somewhere, then experimented and realised that ice baths help far better than massages,” Gopichand recalls. “So at the All England in 2001, I would just go back and lie in ice. I realised it after the first or second time that it was helping my back, my calf, my neck.” What really cooled down his mind eventually was beating Peter Gade. “I was satisfied after that.”
But before that came the legendary journey to All England that’s nothing short of the trials and tribulations of a pilgrimage. There was no haggling for woollens at Paharganj this time, as he took off from Bangalore where his visa-stamped passport had fetched up. The flight route was Bandar Abbas – Frankfurt – London. Transiting travellers at the Iranian airport must’ve been amused to watch the lean Indian plonking himself on the floor of the airport for a spot of meditation.
“Thanks to my training stint in Germany, I’d realised you don’t always get time to acclimatise. So I’d figured out how to sleep on flight while sitting and meditate anywhere,” he says with a straight face. A colleague at the Express could vouch for this ability in the present chief national coach. Once when he was the guest at Express Adda, Gopichand, travelling in a car with three others from Santacruz to Nariman Point, managed to catch forty winks before going onto regale a packed crowd.
Still, he would reach Birmingham only around 6.30 – 7 pm on the Tuesday of the tournament, his first match scheduled for Wednesday.
He was to meet Ronald Susilo in the opener and local lad Colin Haughton next should he make headway. “Ronald wasn’t bad, to be honest. At that point, we used to get paper held draw sheets, just one copy per team.” So. Gopichand hadn’t looked too deep into the draw and was pretty much busy dealing with jetlag. “I was tired reaching on Tuesday, so I would play my match and catch up on sleep. Till Friday evening (the day of the quarters), I wasn’t thinking about results.” He shut out giantkiller Anders Boesen then.
Earlier just like that, Gopichand had beaten Olympic champion Ji Xinpeng (China’s first Games gold medallist in men’s singles) 15-3, 15-9 in the Round of 16. His post-Olympics disappointment and wretchedness can be retrospectively understood from how he makes light of this match.
Gopichand believed he had a real shot at a medal at Sydney – the pain perhaps exacerbated by how he swatted away the reigning champ Xinpeng at All England six months later. Back in Birmingham, he made nothing of it. “I wanted to check if I could beat Peter Gade, but I never had a problem against the Chinese. I was very confident against them because of my deception. It was deception with a sort of pace,” he recalls. The top Chinese were playing a certain style at that point which the Indian revelled in scything through with his blitzy bamboozle, and it is rumoured that they took lessons on ‘how to counter Gopichand.’ Some of them he could brush off easily, others he could when in rhythm, though Xia Xuanze was one Chinese Gopichand could rarely hustle.
His biggest enemy, the least reliable ally, though was his own body. “I would be peaking in form to break down immediately after. First day, I felt a 100 per cent, then 90 per cent the next. At All England, I was just hoping I wasn’t breaking down again.”
THEN CAME PETER
It was World No. 1 Gade vs no. 10 seed Gopichand and the latter spent some good few seconds closing his eyes in prayer ahead of what was to be a humdinger. Gopichand was on a rampage even as the scowling, combative Gade grew increasingly angsty making uncharacteristic errors to concede a 7-1 lead. Gopichand had it all served steaming – whacking crisp crosscourt smashes and pushes off the net where he would hold the shuttle and flick off wherever he pleased leaving the Dane bewildered.
Gade, accustomed to dictating points early, was playing catch up and getting manhandled at the net, unable to break free from the hypnotic forecourt strangle of his opponent. The score read 10-2 at one point.
Then Gopi roped in the backcourt to the deception: Gade was left wondering if the next was a cut drop or a punch clear as he scurried backwards. Tight net shots from the technically astute Gopichand meant no respite for the top-ranked shuttler.
At one point, Gopichand was poised to go for a crosscourt smash, but sent it the other way reversing the slice and left the crowd in raptures and Gade motionless. At another, he would follow a clever serve with a placed scoop over the net without moving an inch.
It was also the time when a fabulously-constructed point was worth nothing except, “service over, 13-8”. But from 5-13 down, Gade would climb upto 12-13 and the “”home crowd” was all geed up as five unforced errors from Gopi followed.
At 13-14, Gopichand would fling his racquet to the floor after hitting wide, inviting an umpire’s warning that started with, “Pullela Pullela Pullela” like a school headmaster. Both players would then hit the lines, as Gopichand would silence the crowd on the third game point, winning 17-14.
The pace was bruising even as Gopichand started flicking Gade back to leave him jelly-footed while doubts were raised by commentators on his ability to maintain that speed. Reaching 13-8, closing out the last two points took an eternity. At 13-11, Gopichand was pumping fists and roaring “Come on Gopi” to himself even as the crowd stayed defiantly behind the European World No. 1. A long rally followed before Gade got waspish at the net to get to 14-12. The Indian would reclaim serve by taking the pace off the smash but botch his third attempt to close it out – leaving behind images of a lot of hair-pulling from the Indian coaches. A pair of rubbish nervous shots got Gade to 15-14 up.
A reverse slice cut through the shuttle brought back serve it was 15-all after Gopichand leapt back and sent down a crosscourt. A decoy flick serve on whose return Gopichand would pounce upon would help him make good the fifth match point as he had won the titanic battle 17-14, 17-15.
There was to be no repeat of the Peter inflictions on the All England, as Gopichand won arguably the greatest match of his career.
Of course, none of it would’ve stood the test of glorious recall had Pullela Gopichand ended up “nearly champ” and not won the All England. But the final against Chen Hong, in comparison, was almost tame.
“It was 6-all in the second game and it went back and forth. We knew one guy had to break. I stood my ground. He cracked,” goes his pithy summation. It was later clear that the semis had taken a toll on Chen Hong’s fitness. But Gopichand had proven he could ace a classic semi-final and have enough in the tank to wrest the final too.
The title – one that defines him – remain a wincing memory. “I was so tired. I was just happy I didn’t have to wake up to play a match tomorrow,” he laughs. A party was rustled for his support staff at Bombay Pink restaurant in Birmingham, and then he started trying to connect on telephone to speak to his mother and the ring remained engaged. “I got to speak to her at some 12.30 – 1 in the night! The reception was great. I didn’t know it was so big,” he says.
The All England title definitely rejuvenated the sport. “No one bothered about badminton then. Prakash sir’s triumph was from many years ago and players would say ‘apne se Nahi hoga’ (we can’t do it). Because people never saw me play on TV or in India, they didn’t even know I was a world-class player. I had the belief and hard work but no one else knew what I was up against – age was running off and I wanted to be done with it after the Olympics so there was a lot of pain and anger,” he says.
The indifference prior to the title used to bother him. It hurt when he beat Indonesian top guy Allan Budi Kusuma, and no one noticed.
“I’d beat this very big name in Austria and I’d call up my mother and ask ‘was it in the papers?’ The Hindu would have a mention in a small column. But then nothing else. I realised you have to win something really big for India to notice. Thank God, I won the All England.”
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