Pullela Gopichand believes he has the know-how to launch rocketing careers into orbit. “If they fall off from there, that’s in their hands,” he says, “But we know how to get them up there.”
The latest from the assembly line of Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) to hit the high notes is 21-year-old Priyanshu Rajawat, dubbed mini-Srikanth Kidambi because of his power and speedy spring in his feet.
While Srikanth is stronger in the net areas, Rajawat held his own and defeated the senior at Australia last week, on the back of the power he generates from his arm and feet from the back court, an upgrade on Srikanth. He would also win the Orleans title this April and run a bunch of Top Tenners – Anthony Ginting and Kodai Naraoka besides Lakshya Sen – close in the last few months.
India won the men’s team championship Thomas Cup with HS Prannoy, Srikanth and Sen hitting their collective peak. There were fears if the country would be able to mount a worthy defence of their title.
In the 2023 season that has followed, those concerns have largely been allayed thanks to the emergence of Rajawat (World No 28), Mithun Manjunath (World No 43) and Kiran George (World No 49), who are steadily stepping up to notch the marquee wins on the Tour along with Sen (World No 11), who has seen a resurgence in results, making three straight semifinals and winning the Canada Open. This, while Prannoy and Srikanth are still going strong, and refusing to fade off at 31 and 30 respectively.
“We haven’t pushed Priyanshu as much, and there is still some kiddishness in him. It will take time, but we are sitting on real talent here. When he wins, he will win big,” Gopichand assures.
At Bangalore, where Kiran and Mithun come from, coach Vimal Kumar says he spotted a spark similarly from how they beat bigger players in the junior-to-seniors transition phase.
Kiran would consistently beat Prannoy at national events, had scalped Sameer Verma once before Covid, while Mithun was more deceptive and skillful than even Sen, though he lacked in temperament. He won the Nationals this year and beat former world champion Loh Kean Yew recently. Sen himself had stood out due to his ability to win matches against higher-ranked players.
“Kiran, when he was still a junior, was still excelling at senior tournaments. We at Prakash Padukone Academy look for temperament and ability to keep the shuttle in court no matter what like Lakshya had.
“They might not be skillful enough, but can they put the shuttle across the net, are they gasping for breath, can they go through the grind? Many times a few things are missing, and many times they let us down and they don’t make it till age 21/22. But Kiran and Mithun we persisted with because I could see how they are converting matches at different stages,” Vimal says.
It all began when PPBA graduated its seniors Anup Sridhar, Ajay Jayaram and Arvind Bhat and restarted the process in 2009-10 by bringing in a bunch of pre-teens. Kiran’s older brother was already at the academy and he followed from Kerala, while Mithun would join after a few years.
Vimal recalls scouting out from the Krishna Khaitan Memorial Tournament and the sub-junior meet Union Bank used to host in Bangalore. Someone like a young Rahul Bharadwaj was infinitely talented but didn’t continue.
“In a batch, one or two will always come up faster. It depends on the parents of others how they interpret it and if they have the patience to wait or not. Lakshya’s father was a coach and he had basic endurance. Kiran and Mithun needed work, but they understood it would be a grind and didn’t back off,” Vimal says.
‘Not taking the easy way out’
Rajawat, meanwhile, was scouted out of a group of kids from Dhar at Gopichand’s Gwalior academy.
“He had a spring in his legs and a smile on his face. The boy was quick and happy to play. He left home very early to come to Hyderabad. Parents need to trust you, there should be basic talent, an idea of sport and a good work ethic. You can build around that,” Gopichand says.
“Players need to see mistakes and evolve in speed and strength and whatever is needed for international badminton. Many have potential, but only those who are ready to go through the rigour in training and are brave enough to try new things, to take the bold steps to succeed. With Priyanshu, I was able to push him,” he adds.
What’s common to the standout performers from the academy, Prannoy (31) and Rajawat (21), this season is how they could simulate the intensity of a match in training. “Your heart is beating at 180-190 and you are moving fast with power. If you don’t train for that in practice, how will you do it in a match? With Priyanshu and Prannoy, I could simulate that in training. That’s what I call the rigour and not taking the easy way out,” Gopichand says.
Besides the speed/strength quality, players need to be smart to adapt. “You need to understand what is good for you and what isn’t. Priyanshu is extremely clever and reads the game well and his awareness on the court is extremely good. His parents have been supportive and non-interfering. His mother just said, ‘Make him like you’ while handing me the responsibility,” the coach adds. “Whatever my decisions, they accepted.”
This freedom to decide has been crucial for Gopichand. “Whether it was moving Srikanth from doubles to singles, or Satwik from singles to doubles, their parents let me decide. Same for Priyanshu, his parents never bothered.” Besides that, it’s eating and sleeping on time and training properly, he adds.
Rajawat’s is also a case of being a fully home-grown and home-honed talent. “We never went fully for foreign coaches or training. All are locally trained. We believe we know stuff, and didn’t get stuck because a foreign coach left,” Gopichand says.
“If one player leaves, I’ll produce the next,” he says cryptically, adding that the quality of spotting and nurturing talent isn’t sadly transferable or replicable to all coaches. Processes take time, though Rajawat came along soon enough. “I’ll keep working and figuring it out,” Gopichand says of producing new players.
At Bangalore, Vimal Kumar and Prakash Padukone believed a little more in seeking out foreign help, and organisations like OGQ helped send the bunch of under-11 and under-13 shuttlers to training-plus-competition exposure trips to Denmark, UK, Malaysia and Indonesia.
“It helped sparring with European and Far Eastern players. Lakshya even went to Israel and competed in junior All-England. In 2019, Lakshya, Mithun and Kiran were all sent to Aarhus, Denmark for 3 months. They had to take responsibility, manage everything on their own, nothing was spoon-fed. It was a good learning experience. They learnt from interacting with big names like Peter Gade,” Vimal says.
The academy has an understanding with French, Indonesian, Danish and Malaysian clubs. Even if the international results are slowly streaming in, both Kiran and Mithun, like Lakshya, have considerable experience of having played the competition in their junior and post-junior years. The coach also wants them to realise that they’ve benefitted from the best opportunities.
“Sometimes I get very angry. A couple of months back, both Kiran and Mithun played very poorly and I told them after beating big players, you can’t be losing in digit scores. You have to make a fight if it, I was really annoyed,” Vimal recalls. The blunt feedback had an effect, and both played more responsibly in the last string of events.
A critical phase in their career comes when strength development begins. “There are injury issues which make it tough when they are loading and building strength and we encourage them to understand their bodies and go through the process. We have had good conditioning programs for the last few years,” Vimal says. Both Kiran and Mithun have spoken of wanting to get better at muscle endurance.
Mithun, who was very inconsistent with fitness worries, has now gotten better at his eating habits and sleep patterns. Good results further motivated the duo to focus on these details.
Elite training is all about more intensive sessions in pace, and how fast you can play on the court. There are consistency drills and gym work for strength at the academy, and now the new sprawling 16 courts facility has an appended Sports Science unit. An Abhinav Bindra centre is at hand with ready physios and there are periodic tests – on sleep and blood work, besides special recovery rooms and hydrotherapy.
Where badminton got it right and tennis falters, Vimal says, is that shuttle made badminton affordable, as both academies dipped into funds from corporate sponsors and the government, and did not pass on the expenses to the elite talent.
“Some of the biggest names in India have been at our academies, and not paid a penny before we introduced basic charges. We never charged big money to players with potential, which made all the difference,” Vimal says.
Former players Sagar Chopda, Sayali Gokhale in Bangalore and Guru Saidutt in Hyderabad have stepped up this season on travelling coach duties.
“Even the coaches have learnt from travelling the circuit. You have to be smart and sit and watch matches, and if they lose early, organise practice sessions interacting with others before travelling to the next event. All our coaches have gotten a lot more confident,” Vimal explains.
Others who have travelled with Priyanshu include coaches C Anil and Siadatullah, while DK Sen and Umendra Rana have helped Kiran and Mithun. Both academies also have Indonesian sparrers.
The next step to Top Ten is the toughest and can take time, like in the case of Prannoy. Yet, both Gopichand and Vimal Kumar are adamant that India’s second rung will need to go through the rigour of tough training to get there.
“There’s no point chasing random points from small tournaments and getting stuck at World No 30 or 40. We know what his game needs and Priyanshu needs to continue to be brave and I have a strong conviction it will work,” Gopichand says. “Players and parents need to trust us,” both coaches state.
- The third rung: Long-limbed shuttler from Mizoram, Bangalore youngster with strong physique.
- The process of churning out players continues at both academies and while PPBA is banking on under-19 shuttler Ayush Shetty, PGBA unearthed H Lalthazuala from Mizoram, now one of the country’s top under-17 shuttlers, as a third rung.
- Gopichand responded to a Facebook message left for him from a former amateur shuttler-turned-district collector who was posted in Mizoram, and saw immense potential around him. The coach would travel to Mizoram circa 2017 and handpick the long-limbed H Lalthazuala, who has now shot up to 5’8″ and ask him to stay back in Hyderabad’s PGBA along with a bunch of others on a Tata Trust scholarship. Lalthazuala would soon deliver results in under-17 based on his speed and strength.
- At Bangalore, it is Ayush Shetty who is being spoken of as the next one to emerge. While PPBA routinely scouts from Uttarakhand, Assam and Pune where it has either feeder academies or tie-ups with different centres, Shetty showed up from I-Sports, a local coaching centre run by Krishna Kumar and Yeshu Kumar. While children from local academies often head to PPBA for sparring, Shetty caught Vimal Kumar’s attention owing to his physique that suits the international level, Vimal says. Shetty heads India’s challenge at the under-19 World Juniors in September.