Not many know that Pullela Gopichand’s wife Lakshmi, also a shuttler, represented India in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The former national champion now helps her husband run an academy in Hyderabad that has already produced two Olympic medal winners: Saina Nehwal (bronze at London Games, 2012), and the current toast of the nation, PV Sindhu, the Rio silver medallist.
“The idea is to provide today’s generation what we didn’t have,” Lakshmi told Mirror when we mentioned Gopi’s rigorous schedule for his wards. “Sindhu has what I didn’t have back then – my husband as coach,” she said.
Lakshmi said it was unfair to criticise sportspersons for failing to excel at the highest level because India still has a long way to go in terms of infrastructure. “What we are trying to do at the academy is to eliminate the difficulties we faced. Back then, the main stadium would be unavailable for months due to political and social events. Once, the entire stadium was shut because the ballot boxes were kept there,” she said.
She is not the proverbial woman behind a successful man who tells him how wrong he has been. PVV Lakshmi, in that sense, is different. An elegant combination of a professional, mother and housewife, she has been Pullela Gopichand’s support system through thick and thin — a pillar of sorts, behind the most successful coach in Indian sport.
But Lakshmi is not out there to just take care of their two children, the wannabe shuttlers no doubt – and provide moral support to her man. She actively contributes to his work as well. Being a two-time national badminton champion, she knows a thing or two about the sport. She knows a little about the Olympics as well – she was the first woman Olympian from undivided Andhra Pradesh.
The game has changed a lot since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when she represented the country but somethings have not and that is what the Gopichands strive to impart to their wards and own children Gayatri (13 ) and Sai Vishnu (12). “He adds focus and determination to their talent. That is what one learns at the Gopichand Academy,” she explains.
Lakshmi was instrumental in developing the facility that has produced two Olympic medallists — Saina Nehwal in 2012 and PV Sindhu in Rio – and the idea, according to her, was to provide to this current crop what she and Gopi were deprived of. “We started the academy to eliminate the difficulties we underwent. We wanted the future players to have the best of facilities.
When Gopi won the bronze at CW Games (1998) and all-England (2001), he was 27, he did not have the adequate facilities. There were no indoor stadiums. The LB Stadium (in Hyderabad) or the one in Vijaywada would be unavailable for days and months because of various functions and elections. Sometimes, they would be closed because the ballot boxes had to be locked there.
“For four to five months a year, the indoor courts would be out of bounds. And then the availability of shuttles. They were quite expensive. We could not even think of physios or masseurs that are available these days. There would be none to advise us how to train and how to prevent injuries. The purpose of starting the academy was to provide all these requirements — physical, infrastructural and technical,” she reveals.
Lakshmi, who was India No 1 for eight years, has no doubt that she would have done better if these facilities were there during her career. “The situation was so bad that we could not think too big. When I started my career in Rajahmundry, there was no national champion from Andhra Pradesh.
Our targets were only national, there would not be any international ambitions. There would be many hangers-on who would constantly discourage us — ‘kuch nahi kar sakte bahar jake’ types. The national champions used to come only from Maharashtra and Karnataka. Now no one talks about the nationals, everyone’s ambitions are global, Olympics and world championships.”
Lakshmi was twice national champion, once runner-up but was India No 1 for close to eight years. “I had won several Indian ranking tournaments,” she reminds.
She had won a bronze team championship in Malaysia CW Games, SAARC titles in singles, doubles and mixed in Sri Lanka besides being a proud Olympian. “We were workaholics. The only advantage for us then was we didn’t have the distractions that the current players have in the form of electronic gadgets and cell phones. We were pretty serious – on and off the court. Gopi used to spend four-five months a year in Germany only to practise. That is the reason he could win the all-England,” she avers.
So how has Gopi developed as a coach? “Gopi as a coach is 100 per cent commitment. He gives his all and expects the same from the students. There is no other passion in his life than coaching. Sometimes he would be so lost in his own world that he would not know who are around him. He would not even know that I am talking to him. I literally have to shake him up. That kind of intensity, focus and commitment… I have never seen in any other such coach.”
She continues: “He lives in literally in the academy – conducting different sessions from 10 year-old to 30-yearolds. He goes there at 4 am returns only after 7 pm with two-hour lunch break. Sometimes, it gets slashed by one hour. We get to spend quality time only for an hour in the evenings. But I can understand that. Whatever support I can extend I give him. I don’t tell him that he must spend more time with the family. I am happiest because he is a doting father to the kids.”
The obvious question was about Sindhu and Lakshmi retorts instantly. “Sindhu is special because she has Gopi for support. He is her biggest asset. I am not saying because he is my husband but because of the commitment the coach has shown for her. I have no regrets in my career but If I had had a coach as committed as Gopi is, I would have done very well.” But Lakshmi credits Sindhu for other qualities as well. “She has changed tremendously over the last 4-5 months. She used to be good before also but of late she has improved greatly. She would be most vulnerable when she was winning. The body language was meek and droopy.
She did not know how to close the matches. But she has become mentally and physically strong and has developed aggression. You could see that in the Olympics. I am really proud of her for being the youngest woman medallist of the country. She is a very committed and sincere student.” Lakshmi is happy that her own daughter Gayatri is developing into a good player. “She is India No 1 in Under 15 and last year, she was the youngest to participate in the junior ABC in Indonesia. Then she was 12. And she had won doubles champion,” the mother in her speaks with pride.
Lakshmi and Gopi married in June 2002 after seeing each other for quite some time but she would not say they were exactly the Alan Budikusuma and Susi Susanti version of Indian badminton. The Indonesian pair were famous love birds in the badminton circuit who had won the Olympic singles gold medals in Barcelona in 1992. “It was a love marriage but not many people did know about us,” she would remark rather reluctantly and signs off instantly, “Today PVV Lakshmi is not the news. PV Sindhu is.”