Pullela Gopichand,winner of the All England Open Badminton tournament and a coach and mentor to a new generation of badminton players, was born on November 16, 1973 at Nagandla in Andhra Pradesh’s Prakasam district.
As a child he was interested in cricket but his brother reportedly nudged him towards badminton. During college he captained the combined varsities badminton team in 1990 and 1991. Gopichand’s coaches included S.M. Arif, Prakash Padukone and Ganguly Prasad.
In 1996 Gopichand won his first National Badminton title. He followed this with five successive national titles. At the 1998 Indian national games in Imphal, he bagged two gold medals and a silver. He won gold at the 1996 SAARC badminton tournament at Vijayawada and the 1997 edition at Colombo. He won a silver medal in the team event and a bronze in the men’s singles at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
In 1999, he won France’s Toulouze open championship and the Scottish open championship, as well as the Asian satellite tournament held at Hyderabad.
In 2001, Gopichand created history in London by winning the All England Open Badminton Championships, making him the second Indian to win the championships after Prakash Padukone, the 1980 winner. His resounding 15-12, 15-6 victory in the finals over China’s Chen Hong came after beating Olympic champion Ji Xinpeng and a semi-final victory over the worlds’ top ranked player, Peter Gade.
Calling his triumph “one of the biggest surprises” of the prestigious tournament, Richard Collins of The Telegraph wrote: “The 27-year-old’s success emulated that of Prakash Padukone, who has not only coached Gopichand at the Padukone academy in Bangalore, but implanted a few of his own characteristics as well. There were similarities in the fluid movement and the deft net game and even in the comparable absence of a big smash, although Gopichand is more attacking than the master.”
According to a report in the Indian Express Gopichand “deliberately slowed down the game which forced the Chinese into committing a series of unforced errors…Chen was clearly unnerved by the first game loss while luck smiled on Gopichand whose first two points in the second game came from serves that landed on the back line”.
After retiring from the game, Gopichand was determined to provide young and upcoming Indian players a space where their physical and mental skills could be honed, an endeavour leading to the opening of the Gopichand badminton academy in Hyderabad. Badminton star Saina Nehwal is a product of the academy. So are players such as Parupalli Kashyap, P.V. Sindhu and Gurusai Datt.
The Olympic medal-winning Nehwal also won the Indonesia Open, and is one of the brightest stars of Indian badminton. Outlook magazine in August 2013 described how Gopichand’s academy was bringing out the best in players: “…Gopi’s academy has become a sort of ‘champ factory’, churning out a line of world-class, aggressive shuttlers. Being a high-energy sport, badminton is often referred to as a ‘coach-vs-coach game’ where strategies are as important as a player’s skill...Sindhu, who is 5’11”…was initially said to be ‘too tall’ for a shuttler. Her coverage of the back of the court, especially, was sluggish. But Gopi recruited special fitness trainers to strengthen Sindhu’s legs and now the weakness is her greatest strength.”
The academy today trains between 130 and 150 badminton players. Besides coaches and support staff, the eight Yonex courts are “complemented by a swimming pool, a health club, rehab and wellness centre, a football ground, running track, ice and steam bath facilities, jacuzzi and a cafeteria”, India Today magazine reported in September 2013. “When I was playing, I went abroad looking for places to train to get better,” Gopichand told India Today. “Sometimes I was refused entry because coaches there would not want outsiders to know how their system worked. I wished we had such a place so we did not have to beg.”
Gopichand is also known to take a principled stand when it comes to endorsements, and once turned down a lucrative contract with a major soft drink manufacturer. Explaining his decision to Outlook, he said: “Personally, I never drink fizzy drinks so I don’t want any child to drink one because of me. I am no medical expert but I know soft drinks are unhealthy. I have made it clear to my manager that I will not endorse anything I believe is unhealthy such as cigarettes, liquor or aerated drinks.”
For his contribution to sports, as a player, coach and mentor, Pullela Gopichand has received several awards including the Arjuna Award (1999), Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (2001), Padma Shri (2005) and Dronacharya Award (2009). Through his badminton academy he has ensured that his legacy will be a long and illustrious one in the history of Indian sports.
Also on this day:
1927 — Shreeram Lagoo, Marathi and Hindi film and theatre actor, was born
1930 — Mihir Sen, Indian swimmer who became first Asian to swim across the English Channel, was born
1936 — Ramoji Rao, Telugu businessman and media entrepreneur, was born
1963 — Meenakshi Seshadri, Indian film actress, was born
1980 — Jayan, Malayalam film actor, passed away
1991 — Maya Dolas, underworld gangster, died