How Pullela Gopichand smashed the pain barrier to win All England Open
Probably the most prestigious annual event in the international badminton calendar, the All England Open has a special connection to Indian badminton.
After all, Prakash Padukone winning the 1980 edition marked the country’s first notable achievement on the global badminton stage. Gopichand’s victory, though, holds its own significance for much more personal reasons.
A point to prove
As a youngster, Pullela Gopichand’s talents were beyond reproach and it seemed obvious the Hyderabadi shuttler could one day have the world at his feet.
Fate, however, took a cruel turn in 1994. Just as Pullela Gopichand was breaking through to the international stage as a 20-year-old, he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in the knees during the nationals in Pune.
In the 90s, an ACL tear could often spell the end of a career.
After undergoing three major surgeries over the next two years and a lot of hard-work, Gopichand came back and went on to enjoy a fairly successful career.
Pullela Gopichand won the 1996 nationals and retained it for the next five years.
On the international arena, he won bronze at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and 2000 Asian championships.
Pullela Gopichand also won a few lower-tier International Badminton Federation (IBF) tournaments. IBF was the predecessor to Badminton World Federation (BWF) of today.
However, the fact that his bad knee put a lid on his potential was quite evident. The lingering injury came back to haunt him time and again, particularly at big events, where the intensity was fiercer.
Until 2000, Pullela Gopichand had three runners up finishes (the 1997 India Open and the 1999 French and German Opens) to his name in the higher-tier IBF World Grand Prix events but failed to go all the way.
The All England was also categorised as an IBF World Grand Prix tournament.
Pullela Gopichand’s bad knee hurt him badly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Forced to play with a swollen knee and a fever (side-effects of his knee pain), Gopichand was knocked out from the pre-quarterfinals in his debut Summer Games. It was a terrible setback.
The heartbreak hit Gopi hard. Heading into the All England Championships in Birmingham six-months later, the Indian badminton player wasn’t expecting much from himself.
“I expected a lot in Sydney and ended up being bitterly disappointed so I made it a point to not go into All England with any expectation. It was a deliberate ploy to avoid disappointment. I prepared very well, but had no expectations,” Gopichand told Times of India.
The world wasn’t expecting much from the Indian either. Pullela Gopichand was seeded a lowly 10th in the tournament and with his knee troubles well-documented, no one counted the then 27-year-old as a dark horse either.
The time was ripe for Gopichand to prove everyone wrong, including himself.
Pullela Gopichand’s All England tussle in Birmingham
Drafted in Section 1 of the All England Open 2001, the draw wasn’t kind to Gopichand.
After getting past Singaporean shuttler Ronald Susilo by a 15-12, 15-12 scoreline in the opening round, Gopichand found himself pitted against English national champion Colin Houghton in the second.
The Indian, though, cruised past the Brit 15-7, 15-4 in his own backyard to set up a Round of 16 clash against China’s Ji Xinpeng – the reigning Olympic champion.
Gopi produced what was one of the finest attacking displays of his career to outclass Xinpeng 15-3, 15-9 to progress to the quarter-finals of the All England Championships for the first time in his career.
While almost everyone expected Gopi to clash against Indonesian legend Taufik Hidayat in the final eight, the Indian’s opponent turned out to be Danish youngster Anders Boesen, who pulled off a big upset victory against Taufik.
Pullela Gopichand, however, fended off the unpredictable Dane comfortably 15-11, 15-7 to head into the semi-finals.
The victory put Gopichand across another Danish player but this one wasn’t an unknown youngster like Boesen. World No. 1 Peter Gade – a former All England winner and five-time European champion – blocked Gopichand’s road to the final.
Heading into the match, Gopichand had never beaten Gade in their two prior meetings (1997 Danish Open and 1998 Swiss Open).
On the day of the match, though, the script changed. Pullela Gopichand played what was the match of his life to beat the Danish ace 17-14, 17-15, with both games going into a tie-break.
The victory remains Gopichand’s only win over Gade and more importantly, the Indian achieved it, smashing through the pain-barrier. His knee issues had started flaring up again over the course of the tournament.
Having to play on concrete – a surface especially stressful on the players’ knees, Gopichand had to take ice baths after every match or practice session to keep himself functional for the next.
“I went through that All England tournament in a cloud of pain. But I remained totally focused,” Pullela Gopichand remembers.
Incidentally, that was the last All England Championships played on concrete with wooden surfaces cushioned with synthetic Hova mats becoming the norm from the following year.
Gopichand’s All England final: ‘Great day for Indian badminton’
In the final, Pullela Gopichand came up against China’s Chen Hong.
Though not quite a big name like Xinpeng or Gade, Hong had turned heads in the tournament, especially after upsetting Sydney 2000 silver medallist Hendrawan in the other bracket’s Round of 16.
Pullela Gopichand made a poor start in the decider, going 11-7 behind but soon enough, his elegant offensive brand of play shone through.
Gopichand won the match 15-12, 15-6 to claim his first major title on March 11, 2001 – still remembered as a red-letter day for Indian badminton.
“It's a fantastic achievement...a great day for Indian badminton. Gopichand has proved that Indians can be world beaters,” 1980 champion Prakash Padukone, who had also mentored Pullela Gopichand during his early career, said after his student’s triumph.
For Gopichand himself, the All England title was not only the vindication of his years of excruciating struggle but also the base on which he would build the future of Indian badminton as a coach.
“Between 1980, when Prakash sir won the All England championship, and 2000, we had almost lost our connection with badminton.
It was important for me to win to prove that Indians can win in the modern age of badminton where power and fitness were of great importance. Without that win, I couldn’t have built a coaching platform and shown everyone what we can achieve,” Gopichand told India Today.
Gopichand’s list of students features London 2012 bronze medallist Saina Nehwal, Rio 2016 silver medallist and current women’s world champion PV Sindhu, former world No. 1 men’s player Kidambi Srikanth and several other top shuttlers who have collectively taken Indian badminton to the next stage.
Gopichand has also received an honourable mention from the International Olympic Committee for his contribution to badminton as a mentor and coach.