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Pullela Gopichand ensures PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal brought home medals despite having to divide his attention

"Please follow up on priority. I need the coaches.''

The worry was showing in Pullela Gopichand's tone as he spoke, a trifle agitated, over the phone. Ever since the exit of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handayo early this year, national badminton coach Gopichand's workload has increased tremendously. Handayo, the former coach of Indonesian legend Taufik Hidayat had taken the top singles players under his belt in 2017 and produced results, with Gopi slipping into the role of a coach-mentor.

 Pullela Gopichand ensures PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal brought home medals despite having to divide his attention

Indian badminton players Pusarla Venkata Sindhu (L) and Saina Nehwal (R) look on as their coach Gopichand (C) speaks during a press conference in Hyderabad. AFP

But now Gopi is back as in charge of the creme de la creme of Indian badminton which includes the top six players – PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, Sai Praneeth and Sameer Verma. But at the same time, his role as the man in charge of his badminton academies and the national badminton coach means he has to monitor the progress made by the second-rung and gen-next players as well.

"Are you specifically looking for a foreign coach?'' I asked.

"No, any quality coach. In fact, having an Indian coach is better in many ways. But the problem is we have a huge paucity of good coaches in India. I have always said this. More than players, we need to focus on a coach training programme,'' said Gopichand.

There are other issues as well. After the Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast in April, where Sindhu lost in the women singles final to Saina, the former moved out of the SAI-Gopichand academy where all the top players train together. Sindhu chose to practise at the main Pullela Gopichand academy, which is home to the junior players. Though the distance between the two academies is just 2 km, it signalled a deliberate distancing between the top two Indian women singles players.

Sources close to Sindhu admit the intention is to keep strategies secret. Of late, Sindhu and Saina have clashed on court, like at the Commonwealth Games or the National finals last November. On both occasions, Saina got the better of Sindhu. In fact, if it were not for World number 1 Tai Tzu Ying defeating Saina in the semi-finals at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Sindhu would have met her Indian colleague in the title clash.

Team Sindhu's grouse is that unlike in the run-up to the Rio Olympics where Gopi's undivided attention was on Sindhu and Srikanth, now he has comparatively lesser time to spare for the World number 2 badminton player. In 2016, Saina was training in Bengaluru with Vimal Kumar. Now though Sindhu is on court for four hours every morning from 6:30 am to 10:30 am, Gopi spends only 90 to 120 minutes with her and the rest of the time, she is guided by assistant coaches. That is because after finishing a session with Sindhu, Gopi hops over to the other academy to monitor the other players.

Which is perhaps why Sindhu's father PV Ramana, a former India volleyball player who has taken Voluntary retirement from Indian Railways, is slowly slipping into the role of an alternate coach-mentor. He admits he is itching to sit on the sidelines of the badminton court during Sindhu's matches. Ramana has the credentials – he is an Arjuna award winner, has represented India at the highest level (he was part of the 1986 squad that won a bronze at the Asiad) and understands the demanding world of sport.

"I want Sindhu to be the benchmark for Indian badminton. She is maturing with age but needs to learn the tricks of the trade, the deception techniques, how to slow down the game without making it apparent. I believe I can guide her,'' says Ramana.

In fact, before every match in Jakarta, Ramana sent Sindhu detailed messages on Whatsapp after having closely analysed videos of the opponent she was to face the next day. These messages included a SWOT analysis of the rival player's game and the strategy Sindhu ought to employ to tackle her better.

Like Sindhu, Saina has fallen on 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Parupalli Kashyap for important inputs. In an Instagram post after Jakarta, Saina apart from thanking Gopi for the 'hard work and support' acknowledged Kashyap's role in giving her 'great match inputs' and helping her in sessions before the Games.

Sindhu is also no longer using the gym facility at the Academy but working out at different gyms in the vicinity. A typical day schedule packs in a two-hour quality workout time. Here again, Ramana is closely monitoring Sindhu's training methods.

"I tell the trainer what exactly is needed for badminton. For instance, we do more with terra band instead of simple weights. My intention is to keep her injury-free till the 2020 Olympics. She needs to be focused, improve her agility and endurance and I am doing precisely that,'' says Ramana.

So far Gopichand has not commented on the inputs coming in from non-coaching staff for his top two players. He says he has no issues with outsourcing the training schedule of his players, pointing out that even Saina has her own trainer.

The next year building up to the 2020 Olympics, is critical. So far, despite his divided attention, Team Gopichand has ensured India is on the podium at every major international event. But with an India hungry for nothing less than a badminton gold in Tokyo, Gopi has his task cut out. For the sake of Indian badminton, one can only hope that despite their best intentions, too many coaches do not spoil the party.

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Updated Date: Sep 01, 2018 10:40:56 IST