Pullela Gopichand has done it all as a badminton player, and while his playing days may now be behind him, he still continues to win laurels as a coach. And, it is in this capacity that Gopichand has made history for an Indian sportsperson.
Gopichand, who runs a badminton academy in Hyderabad and coaches India’s badminton sensation Saina Nehwal, is one of the Dronacharya awardees for the year 2008-2009. He has now become the first Indian to win all three national sports awards — Arjuna, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Dronacharya.
Gopichand won the Arjuna award in 1995 and received the country’s highest sporting honour — the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna — in 2001. In 2005, Gopichand was conferred the Padma Shri award.
True to his persona, Gopichand said the Dronacharya award only increased his responsibility to give more back to the game that gave him everything. "The magnitude of the awards doesn’t sink in immediately for somebody like me who never thought much about the awards. I will also look at it as a responsibility as well. It is something I am proud of," Gopichand said.
Gopichand, who won the All England Open Badminton Championships in 2001 defeating Chen Hong of China in the finals 15-12, 15-6, became the second Indian to achieve this feat after Prakash Padukone, who won it in 1980.
Gopichand has also stayed true to his beliefs and principles and this was best exemplified in 2002 when he refused to endorse a soft drink major as it meant that he would be encouraging people to consume a product which he himself thought was unsafe. At the time Gopichand had said: "As a result of aggressive marketing by cola companies, people have stopped drinking healthy drinks like fruit juices and people in the villages have actually begun to believe that soft drinks are good for health. Aerated drinks are not only bad for health, they are also bad for local industry. Thanks to aerated drinks, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find nimbu sherbet and coconut water."
One of the lesser-known facts about Gopichand is that he was initially interested in cricket, but at the insistence of his elder brother Rajashekar, he took up badminton instead, and how well has he done for himself and the country! He won his first National Badminton Championship title in 1996, and won the title five times in a row, till the year 2000.
Gopichand represented India in three Thomas Cup tournaments. In 1996, Gopichand won a Gold Medal in the SAARC Badminton Tournament held at Vijayawada, and repeated the victory in the same tournament held at Colombo in 1997. At the 1998 Commonwealth Games, he won a Silver Medal in the team event and a Bronze Medal in the singles event. Following this success, Gopichand went from strength to strength as he won the Touloze Open Championship and the Scottish Open Championship in 1999, apart from finishing as the runner-up in the German Grand Prix Championship.
Away from the badminton court, Gopichand practices yoga in his spare time and is also interested in music. Gopichand had once famously said: "I think competitive sport helps one to learn to endure failure, disappointment and injury. In any other sphere of life, this may not be possible." Only a sportsperson who has achieved so much in his/her sport can say this, and Gopichand does capture the essence of competitive sport beautifully in that quote.