In a nation obsessed with cricket, badminton is quickly climbing the ladder as one of India’s most popular sports. That’s no exaggeration. Badminton has undeniably given the best athletes in the country of the last decade in PV Sindhu. Indian challenges at world championships and world no. But the victory on Sunday in the men’s Thomas Cup was the crowning glory.
Pullela Gopichand has seen it all. From an All England winner to revolutionizing the game as a coach, he’s done it all. In a free chat with IE‘s Sandeep Menon, Gopichand talks about the rise of badminton in the country and its future.
How do you see this Thomas Cup win as a moment in Indian badminton?
It’s a big moment. I think we’ve had some great individual wins and some good team wins too, but to have a Thomas Cup gold medal is huge. This is almost like the climax in a way. It’s a great thing not just to win it, but how they won it. To be consequent. In the quarterfinals we defeated Malaysia, Denmark in the semifinals and Indonesia in the final. It is amazing.
Also read | When camaraderie and unity were the key ingredients to India’s Thomas Cup triumph
You mentioned individual moments. What distinguishes these from these individual successes?
They came together as a team. It was very evident that each of them contributed to the success of the other. Each of them supported the other and that was a big asset of this team.
How difficult is it to translate individual success into team success?
It’s even this championship in a way, you could still call it an individual sport because everyone goes on the pitch and plays their match and then leaves. But in terms of a team win, it just has to be right. All your preparation has to be good, they all have to peak at the right time and get those games out at the right time. Injuries must be fewer. So a lot can go wrong but I think everything that comes together needs a bit of divine grace as well and I’m glad and happy that it happened for us and our country.
People are hoping that winning badminton will do the same as winning the 1983 World Cup did cricket. Do you agree?
It’s not that we haven’t had success in the past. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the World Cup or the Olympics. All of that was fantastic. Yes, women were kind of ahead and hogging the limelight. Yes, in terms of men’s badminton and team events, I think this is the biggest moment.
Also read | Thomas Cup triumph: A collective show of individual brilliance
Doubles has always been considered a weak link. How impressed are you with the performances of Satwik and Chirag?
I think the doubles has come a long way, not only through Satwik and Chirag, others are also starting to improve. Of course there is still more to do. I’m happy that the second and third doubles showed character in every game. In a team championship, the first and second games are decisive. Once you have a good lead or momentum to go into the tie, I think you’re in a strong position. So if you win one of the first two, it will have a huge impact. In the final, when India won the men’s singles, we started to apply more pressure and that caused the opponents to make mistakes. But overall Satwik and Chirag were fantastic.
Badminton is a sport that has grown tremendously over the past decade. What would you attribute its growth to?
The fact of the matter is that we kept having those moments of inspiration. In other words, from 2008 onwards, Saina had this quarter-final moment at the Olympic Games. In 2010 we had gold medals at the Commonwealth Games; When the country was tied with England, Saina won the last, overtaking her. It was the badminton gold medal. In 2012 Saina then won the Olympic medal. In 2014 (Parupalli) Kashyap and Guru (sai Dutt) won Commonwealth gold and bronze. In 2016 we had Rio (Sindhus silver), in 2018 we had CWG gold and in 2019 we had world champions, in 2021 Olympics and world championships and today in 2022 we have that. We’ve had those moments where some people have done exceptionally well and that’s been very helped.
In recent years the growth has also been due to the support we have received from the government as this has helped the top players focus fully on the pitch. Travel, training and other expenses were fully borne by the government. This was of great help.
Also read | Historic title triumph: India defeats Indonesia 3-0 and wins the Thomas Cup
Looking ahead, where do you see Indian Badminton now with the talent pool that we have and the generation to come?
The sport looks good. The number of people who practice this sport and practice it professionally is huge. Infrastructure growth in the country is enormous. I believe this will culminate with better players at the top. However, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that there is a system in place and that more and more players reach the top.
So a far cry from when you started having to take out loans and other stuff to start your academy…
I remember in 1994 the government didn’t clear the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games because the norm was will they make the top 6? That was in 1994. Today we are here. I saw this entire transformation happen and it was amazing to see.
What do you think of the role you played in the change?
It was a dream. Very few people get opportunities in their life like I’ve had. I am truly grateful to God and to the many people who have supported me on this journey.
In your capacity as Vice President of Badminton Association of India, can you update us on any plans?
I think in due course we will work out a plan with the federation and let you know. Overall, I am Dr. Very grateful to Himanta Biswa Sarma, our President. Because as a coach or player or academy you work independently, but here there is a lot of cooperation and persuasion. And his support means a lot to the sport and what we’ve achieved is great, but what we can achieve makes it very exciting.
We are constantly receiving badminton results for publication from the events taking place in Bengaluru. So the ecosystem has many opportunities to play and develop.