From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.47 :: Nov. 21, 2009

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BADMINTON / P. GOPI CHAND/BEST & WORST MOMENTS

Gung-ho in Birmingham

“This may sound strange, but I never expected to win the All-England title. Definitely, the triumph was a culmination of efforts, spread over months, which included long sparring sessions with some of the juniors like Sudhir Babu, Guru Prasad and S. D. Krishna. By the time the championship got going, I somehow felt at my best.”

From the depths of despair to crowning glory! That’s how I can sum up the All- England Championship triumph in 2001. Arguably, the finest moment of my career for all the obvious reasons. For many badminton players, scaling the summit at the most hallowed venue of all, Birmingham, has remained in the realm of fantasy. And for this reason, when I beat Chen Hong in the final, my joy knew no bounds. There was an immense sense of achievement. That was one title, which, wh en I look back, could not have come at a more appropriate time in my career.

There was an agonising backdrop to the run-up to that pinnacle of glory. I was desperately looking for an Olympic medal. But, when I failed in the 2000 Olympic Games, there was a long period of frustration and I often wondered whether I should keep playing the sport.

It took some time for me to put that horrendous phase behind. And, in a way it also taught me a lesson, which, even today, I believe in. That God gives what you deserve and not necessarily everything that you crave for.

So, when preparations for the All-England Championship began, I just trained to the best of my ability and did not think too much about the prestigious event. Anyhow, there was that immense satisfaction of being one of the premier shuttlers (my career-best world ranking was No. 4) in the big league. So, all that I had to do was to be focussed.

By God’s Grace I could manage that. After my first round victory, I just concentrated on the next round opponent. I did not dare to look too far. For, the philosophy was simple — to take the championship round by round without putting pressure on myself with the thought of winning it. I religiously followed my regular schedule for this championship. I avoided talking to the media, taking phone calls or meeting people. I just trained, confined myself indoors and did a lot of yoga, following Guru Ravi Shankar’s ‘Art of Living’ course.

This may sound strange, but I never expected to win the All-England title. Definitely, the triumph was a culmination of efforts, spread over months, which included long sparring sessions with some of the juniors like Sudhir Babu, Guru Prasad and S. D. Krishna. By the time the championship got going, I somehow felt at my best — the strokes were coming off well and there was that feeling of being there at the peak, which is so important in enhancing your confidence level. I was in a zone of my own, to be honest, and in full control on the court.

I beat Olympic gold medallist Anders Boeson in the quarterfinals and the World No.1, Peter Gade of Denmark, in the semifinals. Once I beat Gade, I knew that I would win the championship and fulfil the childhood dream planted in me by my aunt Manchala (my mother’s sister), but for whom I would not have been what I am today. Having lost to Gade earlier in my career, I changed my strategy against him, not giving him the liberty to play the drop shots. He was clearly rattled as he did not expect this transformation in my game and lost.

Once I got past Gade, I knew that Chen Hong, my rival in the final, was beatable. For, over the years, I have always felt very comfortable against the Chinese players. Somehow, they have always had problems with my game and reach. Well, I even beat Lin Dan (now reigning Olympic and World Champion) in straight games once. So, when I got the better of Chen Hong 15-12, 15-6 in the final, it gave me a great sense of achievement. Only I know what sort of mental and physical agony I underwent between the Sydney Olympics and the All-England Championship. So, without doubt, the All-England triumph was the greatest moment of my life.

Now, let me trace those agonising moments after my failure to win an Olympic medal. Never in my life have I had such a strong feeling and confidence that I would win a medal as during the Sydney Games. But what dashed my hopes was the fact that the matches were played on courts which had a concrete base with hova on top. Before the pre-quarterfinal against Hendrawan, I was very confident of winning. But, on that day, when I got up, my entire body was aching. I was ignorant of the fact that the recovery process would not be complete without cooling off one’s body in ice, and as I relied only on body massage, it did not work. I was sweating and visibly struggling to keep pace with the game during that match. And when I lost, I was distraught, to say the least. I felt as if the whole world had collapsed. I still feel it was one great opportunity lost.

I have been able to take in my stride even the knee injury, which forced a six-month break from the sport, during the 1994 Pune National Games. But this Olympic failure still haunts me. I still feel that an Olympic medal is the ultimate achievement and only after that come the All-England and the World Championships.

But, in a way, that Olympic debacle taught me some lessons. That is never to expect anything big, to just enjoy playing and not think beyond the next round in any major event!

As told to V. V. Subrahmanyam



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