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A Conversation With Pullela Gopichand

A conversation between D. Shivakumar and Pullela Gopichand at Chief Financial Officers Summit curated by KPMG in Hyderabad

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Shiv: Hyderabad as a city has produced great cricketers from ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig, Jayantilal, Shivlal Yadav, Azharuddin and VVS Laxman. How did you take to badminton?

Gopi: As a kid, I started with cricket and would break the windows in the neighborhood. My mother took me to a stadium to enroll me in cricket. However, I didn’t get in. Then my parents took me to a tennis stadium. We saw a line of cars and concluded that this was a rich man’s game. After that we went to a badminton stadium and there was no one. So, I enrolled there.

Shiv: You are a badminton family. Your wife was a badminton player. Your children Gayatri and Vishnu are both badminton champs in the Under 15 category. How does this family behave at the dinner table?

Gopi: We are a normal family. We don’t tend to discuss too much badminton at the dinner table. However, I am really happy to see the kids grow up and do well in badminton. I had a busy schedule and since the kids took to Badminton, they would come to the court. This was a way to be with them and be close to them.

Shiv: When you started, did you ever think that you would win the All England?

Gopi: I never thought I would win anything big. I was focused on doing well in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics because that’s what my parents expected of me. The turning point was when I failed the Engineering exam and I had a year to fill. I spent the full year playing badminton and ended up as the All India Junior Champion.

Shiv: How have you seen this game change over the years?

Gopi: At the start of my career, I got a job with Tata Steel. This was important to focus on the game without a financial worry. However, our challenges then were very basic. Our problem was whether the watchman came on time, whether we had keys to the stadium, whether the court was clean. Many times, the court would have been used for a marriage or some other social function. That is not the case today. All the stadiums are modern and up to date.

We didn’t have access to shuttles. My mother gave me a shuttle every alternate day. We would get a maximum of 2-3 shuttles a week. Many people asked me how I developed a soft stroke game with a lot of deception. We just could not afford to smash the shuttle since we had to use it for a few days and the sift strokes kept the shuttle alive.

I went through a ligament tear and was lucky to have Dr Ashok Rajagopal. In a space of 6 years I had three operations. That was tough.

Shiv: How do you think technology has changed badminton? The real change has been lighter racquets and live television.

Gopi: I agree that technology hasn’t changed significantly in badminton. Racquets have got lighter. As a result, people are now smashing the shuttle at higher speeds. In my time the smash shuttle speed was about 180 kmph. Today, our girls smash it at speeds of 330 kmph. Racquets have got lighter, strings in the racquet have become tighter. The clothes and shoes have got lighter, and hence players are able to jump and smash carrying lesser weight.

Shiv: You started with Mr. Arif as your coach and then moved to Prakash Padukone, how did you evolve as a player?

Gopi: My first coach was Hamid Hussain. He made me love the sport. He used to call me chua. We would all walk around him and he was a charismatic coach. He made me love the game. Mr. Arif was a strict disciplinarian and I was very lucky that I was coached by Padukone sir. However, Prakash sir was like a god to us. He had won the All England. No Indian had done that before even though we had excellent players. His win made us believe that an Indian could do it. However, we thought that we were ordinary human beings, Prakash sir was a god and that’s why we never thought we could repeat his achievement.

My parents have been remarkably supportive. It was tough foe them to support me. I think my parents and my siblings sacrificed a lot for me to achieve my dream.

Shiv: How does a champion prepare for the summit?

Gopi: I never let the kid in me to die. The kid in me always wanted to win and shine. I took every loss as a personal loss. I wanted to win badly. I prepared remarkably well for the Olympics. I was like a monk. I was in the zone, very strong and physically alert. I wanted to win the Olympics. I visualized and imagined how I would play at the Olympics. I played my first match in Sydney against a very fit Ukrainian. I won the match and went back to my room and slept for 3 hours. When I woke up, my back was sore, and I just found it difficult to move. I lost my next match. I later realized that it was a concrete court with a. thin layer of synthetic mat on it. I was shattered after this defeat and I was lost for 3 months. There were so many expectations in life. After that I felt no pressure.

In 2001 March, we were ready to go to England for the All England tournament. We were in Bangalore and were driving to the airport. When we were near Sankey tank, we got a call from the Badminton secretary that our visas had not been cleared and we were not on the flight that day. We finally left the next day and it was a crazy journey, we flew Bangalore to Mumbai, Mumbai to Delhi, Delhi to Bander Abbas, then to Frankfurt and then to England. We just landed up on time for the tournament.

I was a kid. In my early days I took every loss personally. And, I hated losing to an Englishman. I didn’t want to lose to any Englishman, they had ruled us for 200 years and I did not want to lose. I always felt that they were against us, their umpires were biased etc. etc. This pushed me to be arrogant. I was like a gladiator taking them on.

I always wanted to take them on. India used to send a team to Malaysia to play in the open there. We got accommodation or travel, not both every year. We got $ 15 as allowance. We invariably lost in the morning show or the afternoon show. All of us sat down after the defeat in Malaysia and were discussing how the Chinese smash so well, the Malaysians serve so well etc. I told the others that I will beat them one day. The rest of the Indian team laughed at me and said that I was raw and will learn soon. I had that kiddish confidence to win.

I went on to win quickly. After multiple losses, it was important to keep the kid in me alive. That hunger is what keeps champions going.

Let me give you an example from Saina’s 2008 Olympics match. Saina was leading 11- 3 in the final set and lost the match. If she had won, we would have a medal. As we were walking back to the village. I told Saina half-jokingly that we will go for a gym workout at 6 am next morning. I expected Saina to blow up. Instead she said, ok, but let’s go to the gym at 630 am and not 6 am. That’s what champions are made of, win or lose, go back to the basics, evaluate the mistakes made. Losses should hurt a champion.

Shiv: When and why did you decide to retire?

Gopi: After I won the All England, I went back to Hyderabad. I was injured but would still go to the badminton court. I slowly started coaching the kids. It started with 3 sessions of game and a session of coaching. Slowly that changed and it became 1 session of playing and 3 sessions for coaching. That year at the national tournament, I won, but I beat many of my students on the way to the trophy. This made me think, When I played my students, on one side I wanted to win, on the other hand I wanted my student to win. After that tournament I decided that I would support the development of my students and then I moved to full time coaching.

Shiv: Recently you said, “Being with Sindhu doesn’t mean it is to beat Saina”. How would you explain this as you coach both of them? How do you compare the two?

Gopi: It is only natural that we will compare and contrast them. They are two very different champions. 

Saina was the first woman who broke the impression we had of Indian women being weak and not physically strong to take on the world. When saina started, the internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. I would tell her that she could beat anyone and Saina would just believe that and go out and win. She never worried whether her opponent was a top ten player. 

Sindhu, on the other hand, is a more people’s person, she is emotionally fragile but getting stronger every day. She has won a lot and she is only 23, she has a lot more she can win.

Shiv: What’s the business model of a Badminton Academy?

Gopi: I am at the CFO summit but must tell you that there is no business model. There is very little money. I got 5 acres from Mr. Naidu to build the Academy. I went and presented to many people seeking funds. Most people refused because they didn’t believe that badminton could be a serious sport in India. Many people told me that badminton support could not be supported in CSR budgets, girl child programs etc. were part of CSR. When I went seeking money for the Academy, no one responded. The government gave me a 10 crores credit line but I could raise only 44 lacs. I was depressed. People would not take calls, at parties they would look the other way. So, it wasn’t easy to get going on the funds front.

I took a mortgage on my house for 3 crores and then got started.

Money is important if a sport has to grow. The catch is that 99 % of the money goes to 1 % of the players. So, we need to broad base that. When I won the All England, the prize money was Rs 3.6 lacs. However, when I came back to India, Uma Bharati the then Sports Minister called me to her house. She did a pooja for me in her house and gave me a Government cheque of Rs 15 lacs. That was big. I asked the minister why she was giving me the money. She said that the joy and happiness that I brought to Indians was worth a lot more. Champions have to win and bring joy to people.

Shiv: While you talk of the difficulties of raising money, you refused an endorsement for a soft drinks brand at the same time?

Gopi: Yes, I refused an endorsement for a soft drinks brand. I had not had soft drinks for many years and I felt it was wrong for me to advertise a brand that I didn’t use. I didn’t tell the media about this. I was supposed to star in the advertisement with Nagarjuna the cine star and another athlete. After I refused, Amla, Nagarjuna’s wife mentioned this at a small Blue cross meeting and that’s how this story got out.

Shiv: All of us has work life balance issues, you seem to have a life balance issue. You said a few days ago “I can never give my daughter Gayatri the amount of time I have given Saina and Sindhu” Any comments?

Gopi: I agree, I have traveled a lot with Saina and Sindhu. I don’t think I will be able to do the same with my daughter.

Shiv: Thanks Gopi, for being so humble, so candid and so truthful. It was a joy for this audience to listen to you this evening.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Pullela Gopichand

D. Shivakumar

The author is Group Executive President – Corporate Strategy & Business Development, Aditya Birla Group

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