Pullela Gopichand is one of two Indians to win the All England Badminton Championship, but, more significantly, he is credited with single-handedly changing the aesthetic and style of the sport. Indians had been known as stylists, excellent at net-play and deception. But with modern equipment allowing the shuttle to be smashed at 350 kmph, Gopi realised that artistry alone would not be enough to beat the world’s best. Emerging when Indian badminton was at a low ebb in the 1990s, Gopi believed, when no one else did, that the Chinese, Indonesians and Europeans could be beaten. He blended power, speed and precision at the net to do it.
Sanjay and Shachi Sharma tell his story well. Gopi’s means were home-spun, a testimony to his hard work and discipline, virtues instilled in him in the frugal 1980s. Gopi and his brother wanted to pay tennis, but their father opted for badminton, a “lower-middle-class sport” more suited to his boys. The boys rode to the stadium on one bicycle, and to afford Gopi’s shuttles, his mother saved the bus fare by walking four-five km in the Hyderabad heat.
The price of success is high for many Indian sportspersons of difficult background, and yet it could remain elusive, leading to failed careers and lives. It was nearly so with Gopichand, whose career nearly ended with a knee injury in 1994. To win the All England seven years later would have seemed unthinkable then. He did that. And more—as coach, he made Saina Nehwal, our best hope in badminton, believe she could win at the world level.
One can’t find fault with Gopi—a workaholic married to his sport, a rejecter of endorsement money from cola companies on principle. But possibly the one fault with this book, as with most Indian sports biographies, is that it inspires the question—is this man perfect? What about the rumblings of dissent when he became India coach in 2006, when a couple of senior players had walked out protesting his methods. Didn’t the biographers know this? There’s hushed talk in badminton circles that he never gave his coaches their due, using and discarding them. It could well be baseless, but it could have been addressed to complete the picture of a sportsperson utterly uncompromising in his pursuit of success.