Before the Rio Olympics in 2016, one of PV Sindhu’s sparring partners at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad was a 11-year-old boy. He used to come to the academy at 4.30 am every day to spar with Sindhu, who would eventually end up winning a historic silver medal in Rio de Janeiro.

Back then, the 11-year-old boy could claim that he had played a role, however tiny, in Sindhu’s remarkable success story. Today, the boy is 13 years old and is slowly gaining a lot more to brag about than having had the chance to spar with Sindhu – and the fact that his father is one of the most respected names in Indian badminton.

Sai Vishnu Pullela, the younger of Pullela Gopichand’s two children, is the current all-India No 3 in singles No 1 in doubles in the Under-15 age group. Last week, he took part in his first all-India senior ranking tournament in Hyderabad.

Even though Vishnu lost in the fourth and final qualifying round, the teenager made a mark by beating three players who were at least four years his senior (one of them was 10 years older than him) before that. So far, he seems to be doing pretty okay in terms of carrying the burden of his family name.

Gentle, disciplined strokes

Vishnu, who took up badminton at the age of seven after trying out skating and swimming in school, has the discipline of a player much older than 13 when he plays his gentle strokes. He likes to rally and enjoys playing deceptive drops.

If there is one thing he lacks right now, it is physical strength. “I need more power,” the shy boy of few words – at least in front of reporters – said, when asked what he learnt from his experience in Hyderabad.

In his final qualifying match, one of the reasons Vishnu lost was because his 18-year-old opponent Alap Mishra was a lot stronger than him physically and was able to counter his rallies with his power-packed aggressive play.

Coach Anil Kumar, who looks after the juniors at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, said that Vishnu has improved a lot in the last six months in terms of his speed, accuracy and strokes. “If he can add a little bit of power, he will be really good,” Anil said. “If players hit hard at him right now then he cannot manage. We are improving his strength slowly.”

Sai Vishnu Pullela (left) with Anil Kumar (Image: Anil Kumar/Facebook)

Vishnu is not the only kid from the Pullela family who is under Anil Kumar’s watch. Vishnu’s elder sister Gayatri Gopichand Pullela, who is 15 years old and already the India No 1 in the Under-17 age group, was even more impressive in the Hyderabad tournament.

Playing in just her second senior ranking tournament, Gayatri reached the semi-finals before losing to the 19-year-old Sai Uttejitha Rao. In Bengaluru the week before last, playing in her first senior ranking tournament, she reached the quarter-finals before losing to 18-year-old Ashmita Chaliha.

Beating the seniors

Her performance in both tournaments, which also served as selection trials for the Asian Games, got her a spot in India’s 20-member squad for the continental event in August. While Gayatri has already represented India at the world and Asian junior championships in the past, this is the first time she has been picked in the senior team.

Coach Anil is confident Gayatri will do well in the senior circuit, considering she has already started beating older players quite frequently. “She plays against seniors in the academy two days a week and has started to beat them regularly,” he said.

“Still, we didn’t know how she would play in the two senior ranking tournaments, but she did marvellously. She was moving so freely on the court and playing so comfortably,” he added.

Like Vishnu, Gayatri also likes to rally and tire her opponent before going for the kill. Anil believes it won’t be long before she wins a senior tournament, but for that to happen she needs to improve her speed and stamina.

Ranking tournaments in India often require you to play two matches a day in the initial stages. And if you also play doubles, like Gayatri does in the junior circuit, that could become four.

While she can manage the workload in junior tournaments, she needs more stamina to last matches in the senior category, said Anil. “She has good strokes but we cannot focus only on that. We need to focus on fitness as well,” he added.

Gayatri Gopichand started playing badminton at the age of seven (Image: HT Photo)

Gayatri, who also started playing the sport at the age of seven, said she was very happy with how she played in her first two senior ranking tournaments: “It’s been great playing with senior players. I understood a lot about my game.”

Asked why she chose to play badminton, she said, “At first I used to play only for fun, but then I started liking it. And my parents also wanted me to play,” she added, laughing.

Dedicated children

As kids of two former badminton players, one a former All England champion and the other an Olympian, one would think Gayatri and Vishnu’s day starts and ends with the sport. However, their mother PVV Lakshmi, a former national champion herself, said that dinner-time conversations at home are about anything but badminton.

“Dinner is the only time of the day when we sit together as a family,” said Lakshmi. “Badminton actually does not come up. They anyway start training early in the morning, so when they are back we just discuss about movies or...Gayatri loves music...but definitely not badminton.”

Despite being an Olympian, Lakshmi tries not to get involved in their day-to-day training. “That’s up to Gopi and the coaches at the academy,” she said, adding that her husband, who is known to be a hard taskmaster, treats them just like any other children playing in the academy. “There is no extra attention or less attention [towards them]. It is equal to what others get,” she said.

Lakshmi is also happy that both her children are very disciplined themselves when it comes to their badminton. “They will put the alarm themselves and wake up in the morning. We don’t need to push them.”

Both Gayatri and Vishnu will now head to Cochin to play a junior (U-19) ranking tournament next week. Vishnu will also take part in sub-junior ranking tournaments in Nagpur and Hyderabad in July.

As for Gayatri, the coaches at the academy haven’t decided yet whether she will play the sub-junior tournaments. And why should she? She has proved herself in the big league, after all.