As somebody, who is the first coach of former All England champion Pullela Gopichand, 2012 London Olympics Bronze medallist Saina Nehwal and 2011 World Championships doubles bronze medallist Jwala Gutta, 76-year-old Syed Mohammed Arif has seen the growth of Indian badminton from close. The former Sports Authority of India coach, who retired in 2005, still trains players at some of the badminton academies run by his trainees in Hyderabad and keeps track of his wards. In Panchkula to attend a meet of former coaches, Arif spoke with Chandigarh Newsline about his coaching days, his views on his wards Gopichand, Saina, Jwala and others, changes in the sport and the emergence of players like PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth. Excerpts:
The last few years have seen the popularity of badminton rise in India. Apart from this, a lot of players too have come from this region, including states like Haryana and Uttrakhand. How do you see this development?
For a sport to be popular, one of the basic requirements is that it should be easily accessible. Badminton is such kind of sport, which all can play irrespective of the weather conditions and time of the day. The second and most important thing is the performance of Indian players at the world level. We had players like Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand in the past, who had won All England Championships. But we could not encash it to popularise the sport. Saina’s medal in the 2012 London Olympics was a huge thing for Indian badminton and people started following the sport. The emergence of more academiesmeans that youngsters get the right kind of training and develop the attitude required for the sport at a young age.
Talking about this region, players from Haryana have done traditionally well in sports like wrestling and boxing. These are robust sports and with right training, players can excel in badminton too. We have seen that with some of the Haryana players doing well on the junior circuit.
As a coach, you have worked for more than three decades. Who has been your favourite trainee and what are your memories of your trainees like Gopichand and Saina?
If we talk about my favourite trainee, it has to be Jwala Gutta. She came to train under me when she was four years old. If not about her mischievous attitude for some times, she could have been the world champion in singles category. When we talk about Gopichand, he joined me at the age of 10 years and I did not see him as talented kid at that time. But he had the willpower to succeed and won because of his hard work. After the training sessions, Gopichand would ask me about practising for one more session and would ask to let him try jump smashes. In 1994, when he suffered the knee injury, many doubted that he will make a comeback. I met him at the hospital and he had told me that he will make a comeback. And he did that with the All England Open win.
Talking about Saina, she too made a comeback after the injury in 2016. As a junior, Saina would play in the senior category at the age of 15 years and she was the first junior player to defeat a player like Aparna Popat at that time. Saina would wait after training and would never say no to an extra hour of training when they were young. And that made them special.
How do you see the emergence of players like Rio Olympics silver medallist P V Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth in recent years?
Both Sindhu and Srikanth’s emergence happened at a right time for them and they were lucky to get the right kind of international exposure at a young age. For me, even Saina started a bit late at the international level. Players like Sindhu and Srikanth got their chances and matured with experience. The way Sindhu has performed in recent years is tremendous. She has won Super Series title, won medals in world championships and has beaten almost every player in the world.
There is not much of difference when we compare the top five-six players and it is all about consistency and adding new things to your game. The biggest example is of Chinese Taipei’s player Tai Tzu-Zing. She is a very deceptive player and relied heavily on her deceptive shots. With time, the opponents read her deceptive shots and started winning against her. One has to be creative and keep adding to their arsenal of shots.
Badminton has seen changes in terms of number of games and other rule changes in recent years. How do you see this development?
There was a time, when none of the countries had foreign coaches. Countries like China, Malaysia and Indonesia would not send their players to train outside. But with time things changed. Training methods changed and so did the rules and the game. The scoring system changed and the sport became fast. But with time, everybody has got used to it.
As I said earlier, the matches will get longer after four-five years of new rules. And that thing is happening now. We can see matches stretching to over one hour. Players like world champion Kento Momota of Japan rely heavily on their stamina and that’s why he has become the world champion. I guess this will go on for next four-five years and then again the time of faster shots on the court will come. Such things happen in every sport and players need to be ready and adjust accordingly.
How do you see your journey as a coach over all these years?
In my career, I have trained 33 international players and my trainees have won 230 titles at different levels. Coaching is a passion for me. I come from a business family and nobody in my family was happy about me being a coach. But I worked on my basics and would read about various training methods. I would read books about stamina, meet marathon runners to know things about stamina and would come up with my training methods. These things helped me.
Whatever I am, it is due to my trainees.