IT came at 0-3 down in P V Sindhu’s semifinal against Nozomi Okuhara. The Japanese was threatening to snatch the momentum. Gopichand had been yelling, “Jump and smash. Jump and toss”, drawing out of his player the last ounce of explosive power. Sindhu would respond with a flurry of jump smashes — she had five through the match. She would win 10 straight points and storm into contention for a gold medal. The coach was suitably satisfied. His strategy had been executed to the last leaping detail.
There were bigger mountains to climb. Carolina Marin next.
Pullela Gopichand, former All England champion, was now feeding his athletes what he had been starved off: ready inputs, strategy, an on-court Pentium processor, knowledge and an incredible mind off court.
The All England title had come 15 years ago, and after a disastrous Olympics campaign for him. He had been at his peak — game-wise and physically — but had lacked the most crucial support at Sydney 2000. The national coach hadn’t bothered to recce his opponent’s game, and in the third round, Gopichand went down to Indonesian H Hendrawan. He might have looked back to the chair looking for crucial answers at important junctures — you know how players look pleadingly because the mad rush of the game means they can’t process it all — but nothing useful was forthcoming then.
Somewhere that day, when it hit Gopichand that his best chance of winning an Olympics was botched, it had crystallised in his head that he wouldn’t allow another Indian to feel rudderless in front of the watching world.
“He has a coaching philosophy learnt the hard way as an athlete,” says former teammate Aparna Popat, who watched his 2000 Games disappointment from upfront. “He believes that a player’s job is only to play. It is not the player’s job to strategise. A player has to show up well rested, well trained and execute what is the coach’s homework. It’s the coach’s job. He rued not getting that, now he’s giving it to his players,” Popat says.
WATCH VIDEO: Keystrokes: Super Sindhu
The 1990s and before were times when coaches were not allowed to speak to players from courtside — except for five minutes between the second and third game. But Gopi had seen that it was central to battling big opponents. “He believes that a coach needs to take responsibility. A player’s energy should only go in execution. So we see him make the blueprint and the fine print,” says Popat.
Gopichand would go to Chinese coach Wang Xuyan for the answer that eluded him: Why are the Chinese and Koreans so fit? He would train under Xuyan in Germany while playing the German league briefly; and for eight months before Sydney, the federation would give him another Chinese coach he had asked for.
He was enamoured of the Chinese way, because it obviously brought them success. “He got into coaching in 2004, and suddenly was national coach in 2006. I knew he was smart, but I’ll admit I never knew he would become this super coach, who’s now got you two back to back Olympic medals,” says former international and Gopi’s junior Aravind Bhat.
Bhat hated training under Gopi because he was a taskmaster, but he hung in there and blindly followed what the coach asked. “In the first few years, he was very strict. My body couldn’t cope with his regimen. He believed that training should never be comfortable, it should be killing if the match has to look effortless. He believed our coaches had been too soft, and his sessions were hard,” Bhat says.
Two three-hour sessions a day split into four 40-minute quarters with five-minute breaks. Road running, stroke practice, multifeed, gym sets, repetitions. Relentless. “He realised fitness came first, talent later if you wanted success. But fitness needed guts,” says Bhat.
Gopichand is an affable man outside the court. He was a great idol for Jwala Gutta as a player, when they won a few mixed doubles titles. He listened, and he advised. When he became coach, all hell broke loose.
“He suddenly transformed because his ideas had conviction, and he became a taskmaster. Players took time to buy into it,” says Bhat. It led to the grand rebellion of 2006 when players went to competitions when he wanted them to stay in camp for three months and prop up their fitness. A generation was up in arms, but a younger lot was lapping it up — P Kashyap and Saina Nehwal.
Gopichand micromanages his players on court because of his innate understanding of girls and boys. “Gopi is very intelligent and clever, a unique guy. But you don’t always see that intelligence in a player, they’re not smart on court from day 1. So he literally spoonfeeds them to draw an achievement out… When he coaches, he takes all the responsibility on himself. For him, it’s like a general going to war,” Bhat says.
Like a general who gives orders to his subordinates, but someone who also understands what works for each player and what does not. Like in the case of K Srikanth, who plays a lot on adrenaline and whose mind cannot be changed mid-match because he’s so worked up. So, Gopi will never change plans in the middle. With Sindhu, he had identified her strength correctly. There was always a good chance early that Sindhu would be tall and physically gifted when she grew up. “He didn’t bother stressing madly over developing her into a skillful or technical player at the start,” Popat says.
Sindhu, Srikanth, Saina, Kashyap. Four different games. Individual flair and strengths had its place in Gopi Land.
Srikanth was instinctive, Gopi never tried to touch that part of his game or change it. “His prowess lies in creating a player,” Popat says. Kashyap was slowly chiselled into winning the Commonwealth Games gold and doing well at Worlds and Olympics. Sindhu was given time to develop. “The agility needed to counter Tai Tzu’s trickery in the quarters, to be under the shuttle at all times, was a patient, years-long effort at improving that agility, bit by bit. The jump smash is a fancy shot. For a girl to do it, it was pure strategy,” Bhat says.
Saina is, of course, folklore.
Gopi is known to be always in tune with what’s happening. A great thinker and planner, he will have everything worked out. “He’s so versatile, he’ll have three solutions, and four scenarios to solve a problem because he’s so invested in what’s happening,” says Bhat.
So typically, the night before the final, he would stress on rest, possibly two ice baths, talk a bit, and a painkiller to ease pressure.
“Bhaiyya bhaagte hai. Hum kaise baithe rahe (He runs, how can we sit around).” Talk to Gopi’s players, and they’ll tell you he trains alongside them — that explains the 15-year non-ageing — and in turn, makes them feel terribly guilty for being lazy or missing a session. “And he’s not afraid of trying new things. He thrives on innovating,” Popat says.
Bhat recalls an experiment from 2012 when Gopichand went on a Ketogenic diet, popular in the US then, for a whole year just to check if his players would be able to take it. That was right after tennis star Novak Djokovic made it popular; Gopichand restricted his own intake to just 8-10 things permitted by the diet chart. “He read and researched, and checked it on himself, going into training aiding recovery and fitness. He could have beaten all the active Indian players at that time, he became so fit,” Bhat says, laughing. But he dropped the idea when he realised his players, whose every morsel he monitors, might not be able to take it.
Not too crazy about video analysis, Gopichand also relies on his memory to strategise. He’s big on yoga, though.
Moreover, Gopichand designs his own workouts specific to badminton and shuttlers. “You won’t find them off the Internet,” Bhat says. Like Sindhu had been chasing a tennis ball thrown at her and bouncing off a wall a certain way for the last two months for her agility that’s brought her this far, topping her height advantage and countering its drawbacks. “He’s an inventor,” Bhat says.
The final at Rio is a massive culmination of a journey for Gopichand as coach. Sixteen years ago, at Sydney, he had believed he was a genuine contender. He had beaten Taufik Hidayat on the way, and most of the top players in rankings. That didn’t end well.
He would start looking for a place to train, frustrated at not reaching potential — and wind up at the obscure SAI centre. “It was a decision that seemed foolish and a place that was obscure. We all wondered what the hell is this guy doing risking his career training on his own terms?” Popat says.
But sure enough, his game would improve and he would bounce back to win the All England title. On Friday, Gopi had a point to prove all over again. There was unfinished business. “It’s amazing, the motivation, the belief he provides his athletes,” Popat says. Coach Gopichand is winning Olympic medals on his own terms now.