Pullela Gopichand delivered one of India’s great sporting moments as a player, winning the All England title in 2001. As chief national coach, Gopichand experienced utmost joy on Sunday as India won the Thomas Cup for the first time ever, beating favourites Indonesia 3-0 in the final.
The triumph in Bangkok is the latest high for Indian badminton that was set on the path of excellence with Gopichand’s guidance, starting years ago on the courts of his academy in Hyderabad. More than half the players in the squad are products of his academy.
Gopichand’s coaching drive to produce world-beaters led to Saina Nehwal’s bronze in the 2012 London Olympics before PV Sindhu won Olympic silver and bronze in the next two Games, going on to win the title at the 2019 world championships. It was the turn of the male players on Sunday.
In an interview, Gopichand discusses how India won the Thomas Cup, what it took to upset former champions Malaysia and Denmark in the knockouts, the key to the victory and where this triumph ranks among India’s great sporting achievements.
Three huge victories over heavyweights Malaysia, Denmark, Indonesia.
This is big. To actually beat these countries back-to-back is really amazing. To actually have all the players do so well, consistently over the last few days, is something very, very good. I am very happy to see what has unfolded in Thailand.
The same players have played Thomas Cup before without success. What changed?
One is to have the depth all through. To have three strong men’s singles players straightaway is something we haven’t had in the past. To actually have (Kidambi) Srikanth and (HS) Prannoy play second and third singles (Lakshya Sen was the first singles player)… it is very strong. These nations (India faced) have decent players. Say, they (Denmark) had a great player in Viktor (Axelsen), but their second and third (singles players) were beatable because you have strong second and third singles players. Lee Zii Jia was great (first singles player for Malaysia) but their second and third singles were not good enough. So, to have three strong singles, and for the first time to have a solid doubles pair (Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty) who we can actually trust to pull off a match… that makes it very big.
How long did these players train together, bond before leaving for Thailand?
They have all lived here (Hyderabad) for so long. For example, Srikanth, Prannoy, Priyanshu (Rajawat)… they have all been here for ages. Then Satwik and Chirag and all the doubles players have literally lived here for say the last 10 years. Chirag a little less, say 6-8 years, but the rest of them started playing badminton here. So, they have all been here most of the time.
How significant was the contribution of doubles pair Shetty and Rankireddy?
In earlier editions of the Thomas Cup the thinking would be that you need the three singles (players) to win. The pressure on your singles players to win was too much and if you, by chance, lose one of them then all of it was lost. The doubles pairs basically didn’t have a chance. It was that kind of a thing. But here you are actually looking at a pair which is strong enough to challenge the best. So, your singles are strong and your doubles is also strong… that makes it really tough. Many countries can’t say that. There are no easy matches in the entire tie.
Where does this victory rank in Indian sport and Indian badminton?
As far as the team event goes, I think this is it. As far as the world of sport in India goes, as far as that is also concerned, I think this is it. I mean, in which other sport can you be a world champion as a team? You can talk of cricket, but we’re a cricket-crazy nation. Hockey yes, but when did we win (a global event) like this? In a modern day sport with (extreme) fitness and endurance, I can say it as a badminton player, people might approach and say all of this is not right—but for me this is as big as it gets. And this is not only for Indian badminton, it is for Indian sport.