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Guru Gopi: The gamechanger of Indian badminton

Guru Gopi: The gamechanger of Indian badminton

Expectations, of the Indian badminton players who compete at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, will understandably be sky high. The gold in the women's singles will most likely be a battle between PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal -- the two highest-ranked women in the draw, while both Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy are capable of toppling defending champion Lee Chong Wei in the men's singles. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are the second highest-ranked team in the men's doubles.

Therefore, it will be little surprise if Indian badminton players add to their gold medal haul in Australia.

And when they do, a very familiar Indian figure -- Pullela Gopichand -- will likely be sitting in the coaches chair behind them.

It's been that way for a while now. The team won two gold medals in 2010, which is why the solitary gold medal won by Parupalli Kashyap in 2014 was considered a drop in performance.

However, there was also a time when India wasn't a badminton power at the Commonwealth Games. Before Saina Nehwal claimed the women's singles title in New Delhi in 2010, the last Indian to have won gold at the Commonwealth Games was Syed Modi, nearly 30 years before, in 1982.

Individual players did emerge -- Gopichand himself won a silver and bronze at the 1998 Games -- but the systematic unearthing and nurturing is a very recent phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that can nearly entirely be credited to Gopichand. Of the 10-member Indian squad at Gold Coast, all but two (doubles players Ashwini Ponnappa and Chirag Shetty) began their careers at the Gopichand Academy.

Now 44, Gopichand was already one of India's most accomplished badminton players -- he remains one of only two Indians to have won the All England Open -- when his coaching career got underway. While he formally began the Gopichand Academy only in 2004, the transition had begun earlier, as his own career was coming towards an end.

"It was almost very seamless in a lot of ways, because when I was playing and was injured, I would go to the stadium anyway. So I said instead of sitting here, I would rather coach. Slowly the injury time became more and my playing time became less, as my career came to an end. Since I was not playing, I thought I might as well use the time properly. That's how things changed," he tells ESPN.

The path to success was anything but easy or even assured. While a 14-year-old Saina Nehwal was an early dream project, Gopichand, as a coach, tried to provide everything he had lacked as a player in his own time. Even though he was given the opportunity to practice at the Indoor Stadium in Gachibowli, there were frequent interruptions to the training sessions. In what would be a template for his career, Gopichand would go his own way, taking loans to build his own Academy.

"I knew that if I was to succeed as coach, I needed an academy. A lot of planning went into it. As I played in many of the top badminton-playing countries, I built this academy, which could give the best of the facilities. I always knew that the Indians had good skills but we lacked the power, speed and endurance. It needed hours of practice. I also knew it was essential to have swimming pools, gymnasiums, table tennis, gymnastics, yoga and aerobics halls, steam and ice bath rooms that would help in shaping a player's career," Gopichand once said.

Today his academy remains one of the standout examples of sporting excellence in India. It isn't just bricks and mortar that have made the difference. Gopichand built on the knowledge he had painstakingly put together over the course of his own career, instead of having youngsters have to figure things out entirely on their own.

And while his own career was cut short by injuries and he had little knowledge of managing things, Gopichand ensured the trainees at his academy had it easier. "As a sportsperson, injuries are a common feature. I think back then things were a little more tough because of the lack of sport science support, in terms of doctors or physios. I was fortunate to have Dr. Ashok Rajgopal, who was really helpful to me. But I think, still, nutrition, physiotherapy, the methods of taping and recovery, which help players recover today, were not there as much," he says.

Nothing is left to chance now. A team of physiotherapists travels with both seniors and juniors for competitions and Gopichand has even been known to try novel solutions such as gene-based therapy.

No wonder Sindhu's Olympic silver came not long after her recovery from a fractured foot, while Srikanth won four Superseries titles after his own battles with injury.

And It hasn't been just the players who have improved as athletes. Unwilling to relax on his laurels, Gopichand too has kept learning and improving. As coach to multiple athletes, he has had to.

"Some players respond better to emotion and aggression, while some want a calmer person. So depending (on) what the scenario is, and if the players are nervous, then I try to be more aggressive. If players are positive and confident, then I just stay back and keep my advice to a limit. So I try to keep it as much of what is relevant, rather than going by 'this is my style' kind of a thing. So whatever is important for that player at that moment of time, is what I would want myself to be doing," he says.

With no shortage of talent coming through the ranks, Gopichand's biggest struggle is simply to spread his time. "One thing I had always hoped for was for more coaches to come up. It isn't sustainable for just one coach to handle everything," he said at the India Open earlier this year.

In the coming years, perhaps this will be one more piece of the puzzle Gopichand will eventually figure out. He remains optimistic. "I think every year in the last few years we have done better than the previous one. 2017 came on the back of an Olympic medal in 2016. An exciting 2018, 2019 and 2020 ahead is what I am looking forward to," he says.