The story till then
By the mid-1990s, Indian badminton had administered itself into irrelevance, causing the mostly non-confrontational but suitably incensed Prakash Padukone to lead a players' rebellion in 1997. It was to mark the sport's year zero. There was change at the top of officialdom, and a push to have the athletes take centre stage again - in this case, it was national champion Pullela Gopichand who did. A quiet but extremely driven battler through competition and past injury, "Gopi" moved from Hyderabad to Bangalore to learn under Padukone's tutelage and set out to test himself against the world's best. In 2000 he led the Indians in their first appearance in the Thomas Cup eight-team finals in 12 years, won two events in Europe, and by January 2001 had shot up the world rankings from No. 38 to No. 6.
The 2001 All England tenth seed was a 27-year-old who had had three operations in four years on his left knee. What could he possibly do? In the round of 16 at Birmingham's National Arena, Gopichand beat Sydney Olympics gold medallist Ji Xinpeng in straight sets. Considered one of the outliers of world badminton, respected, but without heavyweight silverware, Gopichand entered the last eight at the All England for the first time. What more could happen?
In the semi-final he played a dominant game, toppling world No. 1 and top seed Peter Gade in straight sets. This was a time when badminton had its old scoring system, where points could only be won on serves. In the final, against Chen Hong of China, Gopichand came back from a deficit in the first game and held on to his lead in the second. When a floating drop from Chen landed wide, Gopichand threw his arms in the air. The final lasted less than an hour but it had taken more two than decades in coming.
"I know that my biggest disappointments have come from sport. But I also know that the only happiness I get in my life is also through my sport. This is where I belong. I've seen my life without badminton and it's not very nice."
- Pullela Gopichand
"It is a fantastic achievement, a great day for Indian badminton. Gopichand has proved that Indians can be world beaters. He can only go higher from here."
- Prakash Padukone, India's first All England badminton champion
The story since
Gopichand went on to become his sport's most stubborn revolutionary. At the height of his success, he refused an endorsement contract from a cola giant, since he believed aerated drinks were harmful. He set up his academy in Hyderabad in 2008, which, in less than a decade, has gone on to produce a stream of Indian badminton players who belong on the world stage - starting with Saina Nehwal, the sport's biggest and most successful new millennium star, world championship medallist PV Sindhu, and a clutch of top ten male players. It has led to a revolution in the sport in terms of participating numbers, relevance and reach. Gopichand must today be recognised as the man who started the Indian badminton renaissance. He gave Indian badminton its wings again - first as a player, then as coach and mentor.
Pullela Gopichand: The World Beneath His Feet by Sanjay Sharma, Shachi S Sharma