Three weeks ago, when the 15-year-old Gayatri Gopichand was brushing past older players during the All India Senior Ranking Tournament in Hyderabad, backed by vociferous support at the academy started by her father Pullela Gopichand, PV Sindhu and her father PV Ramana were silent observers from the first floor corridor.
Sindhu, then 22, was watching the latest prodigy emerging from the Gopichand academy with a smile on her face. Perhaps she would have remembered her own teenage years at the academy when she used to give senior shuttlers a run for their money, like Gayatri is now doing.
Once the match ended – in a comfortable win for Gayatri – Sindhu and her father had dinner and left for home. Everything seemed fine then, even as Gayatri went on to reach the semi-finals of only her second senior ranking tournament. She was eventually picked for India’s Asian Games squad, where she joined Sindhu as one of India’s six women’s singles players.
That’s when the cookie crumbled.
Asian Games controversy
On Wednesday, Sindhu’s father Ramana joined former doubles national champion Aparna Balan and the third-highest ranked Indian in women’s singles in the world, Vaishnavi Reddy Jakka, in questioning the Asian Games team composition. Aparna and Vaishnavi have, over the last three weeks, even filed petitions in High Courts across the country contesting their exclusion from the squad.
Both players had questioned the selection of Gayatri, alleging a conflict of interest considering her father is also the chief national coach, and another teenaged singles player Aakarshi Kashyap in the squad. Now, they have found support from an influential figure in Indian badminton, in Ramana.
A former volleyball player who was part of the Indian team that won a bronze at the 1986 Asian Games, Ramana told The Hindu that BAI’s selection panel had “committed a blunder” by picking two extra singles players – Gayatri and Aakarshi – instead of another doubles pair in the women’s team.
Ramana has a reason to be miffed with the selection, considering his daughter might have to play doubles in Jakarta if any of the four doubles players in the squad sustains an injury.
At the 2014 Asian Games, Sindhu, who was 19 then, had paired up with Ashwini Ponnappa to play doubles against Thailand in the team championship. Sindhu has since gone on to win an Olympic silver medal in singles and is currently ranked third in the world in the category.
Ramana also questioned the BAI’s decision to pick the team based on selection tournaments rather than world rankings. While the idea behind holding selection tournaments for major tournaments may have been noble, BAI hasn’t been able to build a fool-proof system that could leave little space for criticism, as has been argued here.
For example, Gayatri Gopichand is in the senior Indian team for the Asian Games because she reached the semi-finals and quarter-finals of the two selection tournaments for the event, but she isn’t in the squad for the Badminton Asia Junior Championship starting later this week, having lost in the second round of the selection tournament for that competition.
Ramana’s comments about Gayatri’s selection also allude towards the changing dynamics in Indian badminton. In 2014, Saina Nehwal, then 24, had left the Gopichand academy after she lost in the quarter-finals of the world championship. According to reports, she had had an argument with her mentor Gopichand regarding the lack of personal attention towards her at the academy. This was around the time Sindhu, still a teenager, was starting to make her mark on the world stage. The then 19-year-old had won her second bronze medal at the world championship.
Saina left Gopichand and moved her base to the Prakash Padukone academy in Bengaluru, to train with former national coach U Vimal Kumar. She reportedly never spoke with Gopichand for nearly three years, even as Sindhu went on to win an Olympic silver medal, eclipsing Saina’s bronze at London 2012.
Saina and Gopichand patched up during the world championships last year, where she won a bronze and Sindhu clinched the silver after a marathon final against Nozomi Okuhara. Saina, then, 27, moved back to the Gopichand academy soon after. Since then, she has gone on to beat Sindhu in two finals – at the senior national championship last year and the Commonwealth Games in April.
It is no secret that Sindhu was not thrilled when Saina moved back to Hyderabad. This became even more evident when Sindhu decided to train at Gopichand’s older academy in Hyderabad after the Gold Coast Games, away from the rest of the singles players in the national camp, including Saina.
At the time, Ramana had admitted that they had taken the decision to move so that Sindhu and Saina will not be able to “gauge each other’s weaknesses” and know what each other are working on in their games. “It is similar to how Saina had left the academy and trained under Vimal Kumar and then she again came back to the Gopichand academy after three years,” Ramana had said.
However, even after moving his daughter’s base a kilometre away from her rival, it is learnt that Ramana is not very satisfied with the arrangement even now. Gopichand has to shuttle between the two academies to train both Sindhu and Saina, along with the other singles shuttlers in the camp, and there have been times when Sindhu has had to practice without the chief national coach around.
Gopichand’s schedule has also been further tightened by the rapid progress of his daughter, who has begun beating senior players regularly while training. As Gayatri continues to grow and emerge on the national circuit, the cloud of conflict of interest will only get darker above Gopichand if he continues to remain national coach.
While Gopichand’s wife PVV Lakshmi has claimed that Gayatri and her younger brother Sai Vishnu, who has also begun to make a mark on the junior circuit, do not get any special attention from their father or the other coaches at the academy, it won’t be surprising if Gopichand quits his post as national coach a couple of years down the line and decides to focus on only his children. No one can blame him, if he does.
Point being, things are now close to coming a full circle. Just like Saina had to learn to live with the fact that Gopichand’s attention cannot revolve around her like it used to in the past, Sindhu finds herself in the same boat now. Ramana’s reported criticism of Gayatri making the Asian Games squad probably implies that he is not thrilled with this fact.
In the backdrop of these comments, both parties will have to find a way to meet halfway, or just like with Saina in 2014, another high-profile walk-out from the Gopichand academy can never be ruled out.