Indian badminton has had many a stars right from the early days. If it was Nandu Natekar in the 1950s, the baton was then handed over to Prakash Padukone in the 1970s & 1980s. Between those early times when the sport of badminton was not quite famous among Indians to the current time when it is one of the most-watched sports in the country and the Indian players have developed into the best in the world, one man stands common.
And it is none other than the 47-year-old Pullela Gopichand - first as a champion player and then as a even better coach. Almost all the current Indian badminton stars including the likes of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and others have all trained under Gopichand.
Born in 1973 to a middle class family in the Prakasam district of Andra Pradesh, Gopichand, like millions of other Indians, was at first interested in playing cricket. It was on his elder brother’s insistence that he decided to give badminton a chance. The switch to badminton was probably the best ever decision made my Gopichand in his life as he soon rose through the ranks and was named the captain of a combined Indian universities team in the year 1990-91.
He developed his basics for the sport under the Dronacharya awardee, SM Arif before shifting to train under the first real badminton star in India, Prakash Padukone. His first major victory came as a 23 year old in 1996 when he won his first National Badminton Championship – which he would then go on to win every year till 2000.
He won his first international event the same year, when he clinched the gold at the SAARC Badminton Championship – a title which he defended the following year in 1997. Besides, he bagged a silver and a gold in the men’s team and men’s singles category at the 1998 Commonwealth Games held at Kuala Lumpur. These victories propelled him to the prestigious Arjuna Award in the year 1999. He then went on to justify the Arjuna award with a bronze medal effort at the 2000 Jakarta Asian Games.
Breakthrough moment - All England Open title:
#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
His best moment under the sun though came in the year 2001 when he notched some stunning performances to clinch the All England Open title and became only the second Indian after his mentor, Prakash Padukone, to achieve this feat. Owing to his stellar success at the international level, Gopichand was honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2002 and the Padma Shri in the year 2005.
Gopichand as coach:
Soon after retiring from the game, Gopichand was named as the coach of Indian national badminton team. He started his own coaching centre under the name, ‘Gopichand Badminton Academy’ in 2008. He reportedly mortgaged his own house to
set up a dream academy and received help from a noted industrialist on a promise that he would guide the next generation Indians to an Olympic medal, something he could not achieve himself.
Gopichand worked tirelessly towards this singular dream and delivered on what he had promised the country as he paved the path for Saina Nehwal to clinch the India’s first ever Olympic badminton medal when she finished third best during the 2012 London Olympics. He went one better in the next edition at Rio de Janeiro as PV Sindhu bagged the silver medal in 2016. Gopichand led Kidambi Srikanth to the World Number 1 ranking in Men’s singles, albeit for a few weeks, while he also helped Sindhu become the first ever Indian to be crowned the Badminton World Champion as she clinched the BWF World Championship title in 2019.
Drona of Indian Badminton:
Pullela Gopichand is the modern day Dronacharya in its true sense
He was honoured with the country’s highest coaching award, the Dronacharya Award in 2009 and India’s third highest civilian award, Padma Bhushan, in the year 2014. Despite the countless hurdles and quite a few controversies, Gopichand continues to march forward and guide the next-gen stars of Indian badminton to newer heights, the heights he could not scale during his playing days due to the lack of infrastructure and proper guidance. With all his tireless efforts and hard work to guide and mentor the youngsters of the country, Pullela Gopichand is the modern day Dronacharya in its true sense.