A perception shift was in the making for a long, long time. National badminton coach Pullela Gopichand envisioned the metamorphosis of the sport before anyone else, and hence, the days where the focus was limited to men’s singles players alone have long vanished. Gopichand has changed the dynamics of the sport in the last decade with Olympic medallists Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, both women’s singles wizards.

Back in the day, reaching the quarter-finals at the Olympics was considered as a big result for the Indians. At the 2012 London Olympics, Nehwal won the country’s first-ever bronze. The next edition saw Sindhu win India’s first-ever silver medal.

Cut to 2019, a year before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Gopichand is now weighing on India’s chances of coming home with the elusive gold.

Credit where it’s due. Each year has been better than the previous one. The upward trajectory has captivated the cricket-crazy India. In an exclusive interaction with #KhabarLive on the sidelines of IDBI Federal Quest for Excellence #YoungChamp programme, Gopichand spoke about managing the hectic pre-Olympic year, pushing players to win All England and World Championships, empowering coaches to help young talent, and more. Excerpts:

We often ask players about their goals, as a coach what are your goals for 2019?

I think 2019 is going to be a crazy year of the Olympic qualification. The qualifications start in April. Having said that, the All England and the World Championships are the big events, which will be in focus. I would want our players to do best in these two tournaments. The preparation is on for the 2020 Olympics.

So what did the team miss in 2018?

A big win. The Commonwealth Games team gold was a big one but I would really love to see a big win at the All England or the World Championships having raised the bar today when years ago, Asian Games gold medal was a big thing. Now somehow, the players have consistently done well. So, two medals won at Asian Games don’t look so big anymore. I really want to see a world champion, an All England champion, Asian Games gold medalist, those things are what I would like to see.

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How do you look at this pre-Olympic year?

Just try to be injury free, don’t burn yourself out. Try to be fit in a good comfortable space so that in the last 2-3 months of the year, even if necessary, you are able to back off and be relaxed about qualifying rather than be in a position where you stress yourself to qualify and leave it late in the last few months.

Is there going to be a lot of picking and choosing of tournaments to avoid burn out?

Yes, it is going to be tricky because plan A is to play big tournaments but if you are injured and if you get a break in between, it messes up with the program and you have to go all over again to figure out, which is the last option. But as a primary goal, it is to stick to the base plan, which is good training, a couple of tournaments, come back, train again, compete in a couple of tournaments. It’s a cycle.

So apart from Srikanth from the men’s singles department others haven’t been doing great. The likes of Prannoy and Praneeth have struggled, so do you think is a lot of dependency on Srikanth at the moment?

If you are looking at an event like the Thomas Cup then yes, but I’d say third singles Prannoy, Sameer or Sai are good options. If we are looking at people to win the big tournaments at the highest level, I think Srikanth will be the person we are looking at. With good health, Prannoy is definitely a possibility. And to pull out from few matches, even someone like Kashyap is good to win. The way Sameer has played, it gives me good hope for the future. They have the potential but injuries will be the biggest hurdle to cross.

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Prannoy was going through a lot of breathing issues, how did it affect the performances?

It has taken too long for him to get over it but he never has had a full chance to recover because of the schedule. So, it has been up and down and if you push things beyond a point, I think the problem just goes deeper and we just didn’t have an answer to his problems for a long time. He was playing continuously so we couldn’t stop, take time and then prepare. But yes, it is a cause of concern definitely and we are addressing it.

So you spoke of winning the All England, is it the occasion that gets to the players?

It’s all about good preparations to compete in big halls. The physicality is very important while playing in big halls. You need your body to be strong and fit so that you are able to give it a good shot as well. Because the big halls will drain you, where physically you are playing against the conditions first and then against opponents. I think it is very important to be strong there and go with good fitness there and then I think there is a good chance to win. There is drift, plus the slow court, you have to be strong on such courts.

Saina played very well in the Malaysia Masters, how much of a help is Kashyap to you?

Can’t just call it help. We have so many players in the academy. I’m just hoping there will be more coaches and we can handhold them and it’s good because I can’t be doing the traveling all the time and its good of players. We need to find answers because more I get freed up one player, I can spend time with the other players. It’s good to have Kashyap part of it but obviously, he’s had a good run, he’s played well and I hope that we continue to produce good players as well as good coaches.

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Speaking about coaches, do you think the team misses Mulyo Handoyo to help you out?

We’ve moved on. It’s important that we find local answers because we need coaches on a long-term basis. And as much as players are committed we need coaches to be committed because there are a lot of tournaments. The player is playing so much and training 25 weeks, the player and the coach both together have to keep working on the mistakes. We need more full-time coaches.

Is there a structure in place to produce coaches?

There are some programs we have planned and we are talking about and hopefully, in the months to come, we will have some plans unveiling.

We know about the depth in the men’s singles, what about women’s about Sindhu’s and Saina?

There’s a small gap in between but I’m hoping we have had some good results with sub-junior and under-17 levels. I do believe that there’s a lot of talent which can come out of those groups. But having said that, I think it is very important to manage the structure of the junior programs to ensure that there is a continuous flow of top players coming up one after the other.

Do you see the men’s and the women’s circuit as an open field right now?

From a country’s perspective, yes. There is Japan and a few players, the Chinese can’t be taken lightly, we also have Denmark and Spain from Europe, so it’s become open. I think it’s become more open than ever from a sport which was mostly dominated by China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Now it’s definitely opened up but you can never rule China out. #KhabarLive

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A senior journalist having 25 years of experience in national and international publications and media houses across the globe in various positions. A multi-lingual personality with desk multi-tasking skills. He belongs to Hyderabad in India. Ahssanuddin's work is driven by his desire to create clarity, connection, and a shared sense of purpose through the power of the written word. His background as an writer informs his approach to writing. Years of analyzing text and building news means that adapting to a reporting voice, tone, and unique needs comes as second nature.