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.