Long before Pullela Gopichand became a renowned name in the Indian badminton coaching circuit, he was one of India’s brightest hopes and medal contenders. During his 14-year-long career, Gopichand has lived quite a few cherished moments. At the 1998 Commonwealth Games, Gopichand won a silver in the team event and a bronze in men’s singles. Such was his dominance that Gopichand won his first National Badminton Championships in 1996 and went on to win the title five times in a row. Also Read - PV Sindhu Could Remain World Champion For Three Years
In 1999, Gopichand won the Toulouse open championship in France and the Scottish open championship in Scotland, besides representing India at three different editions of the Thomas Cup. But none of that came close to what Gopichand achieved in 2001 when he became the second Indian to win the All England Open Badminton Championships. Also Read - PV Sindhu Goes in Self-Quarantine Mode After Returning From Birmingham, SAI-Gopichand Academy Shutdown Amid COVID-19 Outbreak
Nearly two decades later, Gopichand revealed how he was morally down after suffering a third-round exit at the Sydney Olympics and never thought he could even come close to his feat at Birmingham the following year. Also Read - India's Chief Badminton Coach Pullela Gopichand Wants Tokyo Olympics 2020 to be Postponed Amid COVID-19
“I had no expectations going into the tournament in 2001. I had a very bad experience during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I expected a lot in Sydney and ended up being bitterly disappointed so I made it a point to not go into All-England with any expectation. The lesson learnt at Olympics was so harsh that it was a deliberate ploy so as to avoid disappointment. I prepared very well, but had no expectations,” Gopichand told Times of India.
“More challenging than the tournament was the travel. We travelled to Bangalore then to Mumbai and to Delhi, where we collected our visas, then onward to Bandar-e Abbas, Frankfurt and Birmingham late on a Tuesday. The tournament was a 64-player draw then and I landed on the court on Wednesday with no practice – and we had to play two matches a day! Those were the days of paper draws, unlike draws on Internet now. I was completely knackered after playing matches back to back without rest or respite on Wednesday and Thursday.”
During his road to the final, Gopichand faced the likes of England’s Colin Haughton, Ji Xinpeng of China and Anders Boesen from Germany, and beat them comprehensively – 15-7, 15-4, 15-3, 15-9 and 15-11, 15-17 respectively to advance into the semi-finals, where he came face to face with Peter Gade of Denmark, who had won the title in 1999.
“My first breathing space was on Friday morning. Then again I was so tired and terribly jet-lagged. But fortunately for me, I got into a routine – it was just a small set up then – of play, eat, sleep and play again by then because two key days were coming up on Saturday and Sunday,” Gopichand added.
“The semifinal against Peter Gade was very important. I took it as a challenge because he had defeated me quite a few times before All England. I prepared really well and had my plans in place for him. I was very satisfied with the manner in which I executed my plans. Usually, you have your chances, but on that day I grabbed my chances. Even though both games went to deuce (Gopi won 17-14, 17-15), I was totally satisfied with the way I pulled it off.”
In the summit clash, Gopichand was up against former World No.1 Chen Hong of China, rated among the world’s leading singles player back then. Gopichand roared back from a deficit in the first game and held on to his lead in the second. When a floating drop from Hong landed outside the line capping off a match that lasted minutes short of an hour, Gopichand threw his fist in the air, knowing Indian badminton had done something remarkable.
“Going into the final I was confident that I could outlast Chen Hong (Gopi won 15-12, 15-6). My body was aching a lot and my knee, thanks to the three surgeries, was hurting. The surface at All-England then was concrete. I was frequently bathing in ice and recovery was the most important thing. And to think of it, there were no physio or support staff. But the entire Indian team was there to support me. After the final, it was more a realisation that the ordeal of pain is over than the joy of victory,” he said.
“I generally don’t read the newspapers and there were no mobile phones then. Also it was late on Sunday night in India, so it took time to sink in. But the moment I landed in India I knew it was a big deal.”
Over anything else, Gopichand revealed he was happy to have completed the dream that ignited in him seeing the great Prakash Padukone lift the prestigious title in 1980.
“As Indians we’ve always identified with the All-England Championships,” he said. “And even now as a coach when I look back, my triumph in 2001 keeps coming back. It’s a defining moment and Indians always looked at the tournament as something huge and compared it to Wimbledon. Prakash sir’s win in 1980 has always been an inspiration for me growing up and the atmosphere in Birmingham is special.”