Hyderabad: One morning at the academy, in June, after a training session, I asked national coach Pullela Gopichand, if he dreams about the Olympics. He smiled and said “Yes, I dream. While awake, consciously. The thought that the Indian flag is going high and the medal is coming along.”
Who says dreams do not come true.
Gopi’s daydreaming came true at the Wembley Arena when the Indian and the Chinese flags went up, as his ward Saina Nehwal, bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics stood with Li Xuerui (gold medallist) and Yihan Wang (silver medallist) on the podium. It also marked the fulfilling of a promise he had made to himself at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 when he lost in the pre-quarters. He had told fellow shuttler and national champion Aparna Popat then that one day he would coach someone who would win an Olympic medal.
Who says people do not keep their promise.
Saina may not have won the battle against China but the bronze medal is a tribute to the effort that has gone into creating a hole in the Great Wall of Chinese badminton. Both Saina and Gopi knew they had to get their strategies just right, the fitness perfect and the mind at peace to have a realistic chance of winning a medal in London.
Saina had been plagued with injuries for the better part of 2011. Since the last one year, Saina’s diet regimen was strictly regulated. She ate what Gopi Sir ordered. She was encouraged to practise yoganidhra to ease off pressure. Another person who played a huge role in ensuring Saina’s fitness is physio Kiran. She lost 5.5 kg in the first three months of this year, to help her move faster on court. Her retrievals in London were proof that the strategy had worked.
Perhaps it helped that after the high of 2010 – the year Saina won five big titles – 2011 saw her form and fitness take a dip. Sports experts often say defeats helps in taking out the arrogance that tends to inadvertently creep into a player if he or she is winning continuously. And that manifests itself in the player’s temperament, body language and attitude towards others.
Today Saina won hearts by walking up to an injured and heartbroken Wang Xin, hugged her and quietly walked out of the court. She knew this was not how she wanted to win an Olympic medal. She knew she had a very good chance to put it past Wang, who is world number 2 and brilliant on court. But Saina on Saturday wasn’t the Saina of Friday against Yihan Wang. Her feet were moving much better and she was engaging Wang Xin in rallies, the only way to score points against the Chinese. Because the moment you let them hit their smashes and half-smashes, your game is up.
Back home in Hyderabad, Saina’s father found company in his tears of joy. An extremely emotional man, he has invested his time, energy, money and emotions in the younger of his two daughters. If Saina had returned empty-handed, it would have broken the heart of this man who borrowed money from his Provident Fund to fund Saina’s badminton dream. As it would have mother Usha Rani’s. Both Harvir and Usha have been badminton players and Saina herself concedes that but for her mother’s push, encouragement and even slaps, London could not have been conquered.
It is also time to compliment the badminton infrastructure in Hyderabad because Saina is a product of the system. She was first spotted as a talent at the summer coaching camp in 1999 and encouraged by successive badminton coaches. She blossomed into a player of international repute once Gopi took her under his wings and the world-class infrastructure at his Academy helped. And along with training her, Gopi also instilled in Saina the virtue of keeping her feet firmly on the ground.
Today as India celebrates its first Olympic medal in badminton, along with Saina, it is also time to salute Gopichand, the man who made it possible. His name is never mentioned in the chorus for the Bharat Ratna. To my mind, as someone who both excelled in his sport and gave back to the game, Gopi is as deserving if not more than Sachin Tendulkar, Dhyan Chand and Viswanathan Anand.
(T S Sudhir is the author of `Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography’)