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All England Championships: Revisiting Pullela Gopichand’s unexpected 2001 triumph which sparked Indian badminton's rise

Ace doubles international Leroy D’Sa can claim the distinction of being one of only two Indians (me being the other) to have witnessed the title matches of the only two Indians to win the All England men’s singles title – Prakash Padukone in 1980, and Pullela Gopichand in 2001.

The summit clashes took place in two different stadia, in two different English cities, 21 years apart. The 1980 competition was played at the Wembley Arena, in suburban London, while the 2001 edition was held at the Birmingham Arena in a British town that boasts a fairly large-sized expatriate Indian population.

 All England Championships: Revisiting Pullela Gopichand’s unexpected 2001 triumph which sparked Indian badmintons rise

Pullela Gopichand holding the All England trophy in 2001. AFP

D’Sa, who represented the country in the Thomas Cup, Asian and Commonwealth Games, was a 27-year-old active player at the time of the 1980 All England; and, at 48 years of age, was one of the two coaches of the Indian squad that took part in the 2001 edition of the world’s pre-eminent badminton competition.

How did Gopichand, who was by no means a pre-tournament favourite, and was only seeded in the 9-16 bracket, manage to pocket one of the biggest prizes in the game?

There continued to be a question mark over his physical fitness, following a major tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee during the National Games in Pune in 1994. The injury had required knee reconstruction, and cost Gopichand the next three years of his career, for it gave way in similar fashion on two more occasions. Gradually, he worked himself back to fitness with endless hours of physiotherapy and physical training.

Between 1997 and 2001, Gopichand concentrated all his energies on singles, and cut out doubles from his regimen. After winning the national singles title for the fifth time in 2000-01, he was ready to conquer the world.

“I was probably playing the best of my career at the time,” he reminisces. “Having become the national champion in 1997-98, I had thought it was imperative for me to achieve as much as possible at the international level.

“Domestic competition had ceased to become important. I had already won the Nationals more than once; so even if I were to win another national title, I would still be called a national champion. I had to do something at the international level to be remembered as a worthy player.”

Gopichand was very open to new ideas about training and playing, and began training very differently. He moved from the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore to the Sports Authority of India (SAI), where he worked much harder on his weight training, and started playing a game that was very different from earlier days.

“I turned more towards aggression on the court,” he says. “Off the court, I read up a lot on the game, got into yoga, controlled my diet. All these ideas had been with me from a very young age, but there was great help from (coach) Ganguly Prasad.

“The idea at the back of my mind was that I should do what I had set out to do, and put my full effort behind it; and, if it did not happen, at least it would not have been for lack of effort. It was not that the knee did not bother me occasionally, but I just maintained my focus.”

Gopichand went to Birmingham in 2001 without too many expectations. An unpleasant surprise awaited him – this tournament was also being played on concrete. 2001 happened to be the last year that the International Badminton Federation (now BWF) held the tournament on concrete, because so many players complained. The next year onwards, it would be played on a wooden surface, with synthetic Hova mats on top.

So hard was the concrete surface on Gopichand’s knees that, after each practice session or match, he would lie down in a bath of ice tubs, despite the freezing cold.

“It was a treatment I had worked out by myself!” Gopichand smiles. “I went through that All-England tournament in a cloud of pain. But I remained totally focused. When I play a tournament, I don’t read the papers, don’t call home; I focus entirely on each match as it comes up.

“Match after match, I would not even look at the draw to see whom I would be up against. I would play my match, and then follow my set routine – get into the ice tub, eat the same food every day – tandoori chicken, dal and three rotis – in the restaurant downstairs, go back to the room, sleep. I would walk into the stadium an hour and a half before the match, and do everything in exactly the same manner.”

Gopichand refused to rely over-much on the services of D’Sa and Ganguly Prasad, who were the official coaches of the Indian contingent that played at the 2001 All England Championships. They had specifically been appointed by the Badminton Association of India (BAI) to assist the Indian players in their campaign at the Birmingham Arena.

“In those days, there was hardly any structured coaching, as there is now, when players spend virtually the entire year at the coaching centre, and only go home for a short break, similar to a school vacation,” says D’Sa. “Those days, players trained by themselves, and only attended a short camp, usually before a major team event like the Thomas Cup or Asian Games or Commonwealth Games. Gopichand’s efforts at the 2001 All England were all his own, and therefore deserve that much more praise. His win at the All England was as amazing as it was unexpected.”

Considering the fact that Gopichand’s problems with his knee were well known on the global circuit, he was far from being one of the favourites for the coveted All England title. He did claim a victory over the 2000 Olympic champion, Ji Xinpeng of China, but he had never beaten stalwarts like Indonesia’s Taufik Hidayat and Denmark’s Peter Gade, who were dominating international badminton in 2001.

“It did not help matters that the draw had him pitted at the quarter-final stage against Hidayat, with Gade looming large at the last-four stage,” recalls D’Sa. “We thought it would be a creditable performance by Gopi if he made the quarter-finals. His opening round itself was a tough match – a 15-12, 15-12 victory over Ronald Susilo, an Indonesian who played for Singapore.”

After knocking out English national champion Colin Houghton in the second round, Gopichand scaled the heights by upsetting the Olympic champion, Ji Xinpeng, by a facile 15-6, 15-8 verdict. Xinpeng, who had beaten Taufik Hidayat, Peter Gade and Hendrawan on the way to the singles gold medal in Sydney, never troubled Gopichand in the five times they met during their respective careers.

“Still, Taufik barred Gopi’s further progress at the quarter-final stage,” reminisces D’Sa. “But we were in for another surprise. A relatively unknown Danish player named Anders Bossen cleared the way for our boy by knocking out Taufik in the pre-quarter-finals, in what was a massive upset. Gopi had no trouble against Bossen in the quarter-finals, and beat him comfortably (at 15-11, 15-7). And then, in the semi-finals, he played the game of his life to edge out Gade.

“By that time, we had figured out that Gopi would be unstoppable at this All England, particularly because the Chinese player he was to face in the final was not one of their top-notchers. Chen Hong had also made the final from the other half due to a string of upsets of higher ranked players.”

In the summit clash, Chen was completely bamboozled by the Indian’s unusual combination of aggression and artistry; and went down without a whimper at 12-15, 6-15, in much the same manner as Indonesia’s speedy hard-hitter Liem Swie King had gone down to Prakash Padukone at 3-15, 10-15 in the 1980 All-England final. The sole difference was that Gopichand kept getting stronger and more confident as the match wore on, and totally dominated the Chinese player in the second stanza.

Thus it was that March 11, 2001, went down as a red-letter day in the annals of Indian badminton – a day on which a second Indian showed the world that the country was capable of producing shuttlers who were second to none.

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Updated Date: Mar 01, 2019 14:36:28 IST