Badminton

Understanding Saina Nehwal’s roller-coaster relationship with mentor Gopichand

The former world No 1 announced after Glasgow that she would be returning to the Gopichand Academy, ending a three-year impasse.

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PV Sindhu had lost an epic battle of grit and tenacity in the BWF World Championship Final and even the spectators at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow were still coming to terms with what they had just witnessed. It was then that Saina Nehwal walked up to a group of coaches and journalists standing near the mixed zone, acknowledged Pullela Gopichand and walked off after stating that “mera petrol khatam ho gaya” (I am drained after watching the match).

Those present would have probably dismissed the conversation as something that happened in a spur of the moment as Gopichand and Nehwal had not been on talking terms for almost three years ever since the latter left his Hyderabad Academy and shifted base to Bengaluru to train under Vimal Kumar.

But just a few minutes later, Nehwal was back. She clicked a couple of selfies with Gopichand and then posed for pictures with him and other team members inside and outside the stadium.

There was no visible awkwardness between the two and by their own admission, apart for official reasons, they were speaking to each other for the first time in three years. Those who had no idea about their acrimonious past may never have guessed that something out of the ordinary had happened that day.

From Hyderabad to Bengaluru and back

In Nehwal’s own words, the minute she spoke to Gopichand at the Emirates Arena she felt that the bond between them was still quite strong and she could take the next step of asking him for permission to return to Hyderabad and work with the national set-up.

Gopichand, on his part, has made it clear that she would not get any special privileges and needed to to work within the set-up, a reason why she had left the academy back in 2014, which the 27-year-old readily accepted.

It has been widely reported that Nehwal had a fight with her mentor and coach after she lost in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Championship in Copenhagen. The reason for the fight was that she felt she was not getting enough personalised attention from him. This was the same tournament where Sindhu won her second WC bronze medal and even before the dust had settled, Nehwal had left Hyderabad and was on her way to Bengaluru.

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Things came to such a state thereafter that she did not even acknowledge Gopichand’s congratulations after becoming the world No 1 at the India Open in 2015. According to sources in the Badminton Association of India, the 27-year-old had even spoken about the need to decentralise power from one coach for the greater good of players just a few months ago.

Given the circumstances, one would expect such a reconciliation to go through a certain gestation period before things begin to look up. But it is learnt that Nehwal spoke about the proposition for the first time on the same evening before leaving for India and the final decision was made within a week.

While the announcement of Nehwal returning to her alma-mater within a week of that conversation has come as a total surprise to many, those who have witnessed the high and lows of the mentor-pupil relationship over a decade and half would vouch for the fact that the unexpected isn’t exactly unexpected when it comes to the two.

A journey of two intense characters

Both Nehwal and Gopichand are intense characters who are willing to push the limits to get the desired results. From the very beginning, the relationship between the two was built on the former’s ability to break the envelope of her physical capacity during training while the latter did all the pushing. Neither liked to accept defeat.

Gopichand’s biography also mentions how as coach he would barge into the teenager’s room with little regard for her privacy to check if she had any chocolates stored in her closet as she had a sweet tooth and had a tendency to put on weight.

I distinctly remember a conversation with him during the World Junior Championship in Pune which Nehwal won. She was 18 then and the way Gopichand was ordering her around, it was an obvious question to ask him about the control he has on her.

To which Gopichand’s single line answer was, “I need to even know the number of times she goes to the loo.”

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A year later, Gopichand once again showed who the boss was when he purposely delayed Nehwal’s entry to China Masters, which was to be held soon after the World Championships in Hyderabad. The 27-year-old had just recovered from chicken pox and though she was keen to go to China to defend her ranking points, the coach felt that she should train. And without taking her into confidence, decided not to send her entry.

Finding her name missing from the entry list, Nehwal was quick to blame the BAI before learning about her coach’s hand in the entire episode.

Quite simply, Nehwal had surrendered herself to the almighty coach and would do whatever was asked of her. During a felicitation function at the Bombay Gymkhana in the same year, the youngster was busy enjoying the adulation of the rich and famous in the city when Gopichand walked up to her, pointed to his watch to signal that it was bedtime and the pupil abruptly cut off the ongoing conversation and walked off to her room.

Cracks in the relationship

But the first real crack in their relationship came soon after the 2010 Asian Games when Gopichand lashed out at her for not staying focused before the quarter-finals against Hong Kong’s Yip Pui Yin, which she lost in three games.

Nehwal responded by writing a letter to the Sports Authority of India telling them that she would prefer to train with Bhaskar Babu rather than Gopichand and despite her sessions being conducted in the Academy itself, the duo did not talk to each other for almost four months.

But just as suddenly as they broke off, they reconciled with a slight mediation from Nehwal’s father Harvir Singh. Bhaskar Babu was thrown out of the national camp and has never been recalled to the national panel of coaches since then.

At that point of time, Gopichand probably knew that Nehwal was India’s lone hope for an Olympic medal in London 2012 and concentrated all his energies on preparing the country’s only World junior champion to become the first ever Indian shuttler to stand on the podium at the Olympic Games.

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Though Gopichand never spoke about the rift or what happened during that period in public, it was always felt that the Dronacharya awardee was keen to produce another set of champions to ensure that he was never in such a Catch-22 situation ever again.

The rise of Sindhu also helped his cause as Gopichand probably began concentrating more on her development and the two back-to-back World Championship medals in 2013 and 2014 only led to increased insecurity in Nehwal’s mind.

By then, the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist had become a darling of the nation and wasn’t happy with the struggle she was going through to find a purple patch after the London Games and the quarter-final loss in Copehagen was enough for her to snap.

The prodigal daughter returns

While she received a lot of flak from fans over her decision, the results justified her choice as she went on to climb the world championship ladder and won a silver in the 2015 World Championship apart from a couple of Superseries titles.

A knee injury put paid to her hopes of winning another Olympic medal at Rio and though she made a strong comeback in the World Championship in Glasgow by winning the bronze medal, it is very clear that Nehwal isn’t satisfied with her progress and wants something more to regain her world beater status.

And seeing the progress of a bunch of men singles players and even Sindhu under Mulyo Handoyo at the national camp coupled with her homesickness, was a good enough trigger for her to think of returning home to the very place from where her career took wings.

Though the eternal mentor-pupil bond Nehwal and Gopichand built over a decade still exists, it is very clear that there have been too many disruptions for anyone to believe that this will be as smooth a sailing as the 2012 reconciliation.

But five years later, both Nehwal and Gopichand are mature enough to maintain a strong working relationship with the latter staying away from her personal life and only focusing on the badminton aspect.

He probably also has to balance the expectations of Sindhu, who has got his undiluted attention for the past three years, and with the 2017 World Championship silver already in her bag the 22-year-old is the bigger favourite to win another medal in 2020 Tokyo Games.

One can be sure Nehwal would have weighed all these things before taking the call on shifting base to Hyderabad. But she also knows that there is no coach who knows her better than Gopichand. And even if the 43-year-old does not conduct her sessions on a daily basis from now on, if he could come with suggestions and minor tweaks in her game that are needed to up her game, India’s first Superseries champion would take it with both hands.

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