Editor’s note: The excerpt has been taken from ‘Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography’ by TS Sudhir and has been reproduced with due permission.
IT is early on a Monday. Hyderabad, with its leisurely attitude to life, is just about waking up. It takes me merely 25 minutes to drive from Secunderabad to Gachibowli, a distance of 23 km. In peak-hour traffic, I would have had to spend more than twice the time.
But if most of Hyderabad hasn’t bestirred itself at 7.30 am, the world of Indian badminton is already up and about, having caught the sun’s first rays. As I step into the Pullela Gopi Chand Nimmagadda Foundation Badminton Academy complex, I can hear the national anthem ring through the morning air.
Jana gana mana adhinayaka jaya he,
Bharata bhagya vidhaata
Punjab Sindhu Gujarata Maratha
Dravida Utkala Vanga…
The anthem is sung with fervour at the academy every morning by some of India’s top badminton players as they get down to another day of practice sessions and strenuous workouts.
My eyes search for Saina. She is there, somewhere in the middle, in a black T-shirt and shorts, her multi-coloured hair clips keeping every strand from wandering on to her face.
The national anthem is special for her. When sung from a podium, having just won a medal in an international tournament, Saina says it has the effect of pumping her adrenaline – especially the ‘Jaya he, jaya he’ refrain.
The anthem and a short prayer over, the players jog outside the hall to soak in the morning sunlight. Another day, another morning, another session. On an average, Saina spends 10 hours at the academy every day. As Saina sees me, she smiles and waves. Beads of perspiration are already visible on her face. I wonder whether greatness is directly proportional to the sweat soaked up by each of those Yonex T-shirts.
“It is a tough life, make no mistake about it,” says Pullela Gopi Chand.
Sometimes, months go by without Gopi bringing a single new student into his academy. Of course there are the odd one or two who come with “very strong recommendations’’ and he cannot turn them down.
But Gopi personally dissuades most parents from choosing badminton as a career option for their children.
“If you ask me if is there a better life than this, I would say no. I say you have to be blessed to play this game. But I also say that you have got to be prepared to make many sacrifices. Anyone who aspires to be another Saina Nehwal has to be ready to make badminton her life,” explains Gopi.
The academy, recognised as an academy of excellence by the World Badminton Federation, has 150 students (between nine and 25 years of age ). The coaches tell me such is the aspiration to emulate Saina that even if 50 badminton academies were to come up in Hyderabad today, they would be full.
Gopi leads by example. He may have retired as a player on the circuit, but he is as fit as the fittest among his wards. He arrives at the academy at four every morning, a good couple of hours ahead of his first batch of students.
“The thought that wakes me up every day is that there are important things to do, that time is precious. Also that there are lots of players to push. That thought wakes me up in a hurry at three every morning.’’
His wife and former national champion (in 1994 and 1995) PVV Lakshmi (now Lakshmi Gopichand) describes Gopi as a lion on court. “Off the court he is a friend to all these players, but on court they are very scared of him. If anyone is sluggish or fooling around Gopi will not spare him or her.”
Assistant coaches, who individually are in charge of batches of players, swarm around the players, recording what each one of them is up to. As I observe the body language of the players, I wonder if every day for them is a Monday like this one. Will there be the same dedication, the same nerves of steel on a Friday? Are there days when muscles turn sluggish and the body just takes a break? On this morning it doesn’t seem so.
The academy is spick and span, neat to a fault. Gopi learnt the importance of this in Germany. The academy has to be a shining example of the commitment and discipline expected of the players. It also has to be a place where they love to come – not once but twice a day. The picture is complete with Gopi moving around with the seriousness of a stern school principal monitoring every young student, ensuring that no one is out of step.
As the warm-up ends and the clock ticks, the players rummage through their respective kits. Some take out bottles of water for a quick sip, others change their T-shirts and head for the courts with racquets and boxes of shuttlecocks.
Each sweaty T-shirt is like an atom in the molecules that will construct the Olympic dream. And for sure, the day Saina or any of the players win an Olympic medal, the Tshirts will be worth their weight in gold.
It was just like that in 1980 after Prakash Padukone won the All-England. Player-turned-journalist Shirish Nadkarni requested Padukone to give him any garment that he was wearing. In his book, Courting Success, Nadkarni describes how he excitedly asked Padukone for his wristband, napkin, one sock – anything by which to remember the victory. And the newly crowned champion peeled off his shirt and gave it to Nadkarni. The memento travelled with Nadkarni all the way to Bombay in a plastic bag.