Pullela Gopichand delivered one of India’s greatest sporting moments as a player when she won the 2001 All England title. As head coach of the national team, Gopichand found the greatest joy on Sunday as India won the Thomas Cup for the first time ever, beating favorites Indonesia 3-0 in the final.
The Bangkok triumph is the latest pinnacle for Indian badminton, which under Gopichand’s tutelage was launched on the path of excellence that began years ago on the courts of his Hyderabad academy. More than half of the players in the squad are products of his academy.
Gopichand’s quest to become world champion led to Saina Nehwal’s bronze at the London 2012 Olympics before PV Sindhu won Olympic silver and bronze in the next two games and won the title at the 2019 World Championships. On Sunday it was the male players turn.
In an interview, Gopichand talks about how India won the Thomas Cup, what it took to upset former champions Malaysia and Denmark in the knockout rounds, what was the key to victory and where that triumph is among the greatest sporting achievements of India counts.
Three big wins over heavyweights Malaysia, Denmark, Indonesia.
That’s big. Actually beating these countries back-to-back is truly amazing. That all players have done so consistently well over the last few days is something very, very good. I am very happy to see what has developed in Thailand.
The same players have previously unsuccessfully competed in the Thomas Cup. What has changed?
One is to have the depth through and through. Having three strong men’s singles players straight away, we haven’t had that in the past. Actually having (Kidambi) Srikanth and (HS) Prannoy play the second and third singles (Lakshya Sen was the first singles player)… that’s very strong. These nations (versus India) have decent players. Suppose you (Denmark) had a great player in Viktor (Axelsen) but your second and third (singles) were beatable because you have strong second and third singles. Lee Zii Jia was great (first singles for Malaysia) but her second and third singles were not good enough. So to have three strong singles and for the first time a solid doubles (Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty) that we can really trust to pull through a match… makes it very big.
How long did these players train together before going to Thailand?
They have all lived here (Hyderabad) for so long. For example Srikanth, Prannoy, Priyanshu (Rajawat)… they all have been here since ages. Then Satwik and Chirag and all the doubles players have literally lived here for the last 10 years. Chirag a little less, say 6-8 years, but the rest started playing badminton here. So they were all here most of the time.
How significant was the contribution of doubles Shetty and Rankireddy?
In previous editions of the Thomas Cup, it was thought that you needed the three singles (players) to win. The pressure on your single players was too much and if you happened to lose one of them, all was lost. The doubles pairs basically had no chance. It was something like that. But here you actually see a pair strong enough to challenge the best. So your singles are strong and your doubles are strong too… that makes it really tough. Many countries cannot say that. There are no easy games in the entire duel.
Where does this win rank in Indian sport and Indian badminton?
As for the team event, I think that was it. As for the world of sport in India, also for that, I think that’s it. I mean, what other sport can you be a world champion in as a team? You can talk about cricket but we are a cricket crazy nation. Hockey yes, but when did we win (a global event) like this? In a modern sport with (extreme) fitness and stamina, I can say it as a badminton player, people might come and say it’s not all right – but for me that’s the biggest thing. And this applies not only to Indian badminton, but also to Indian sport.
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