Junior Gopichand taking baby steps to make her own destiny

Gayatri Gopichand took a game off Tai Tzu Ying in their first-ever career meeting. PBL

If there's one name that has been mentioned more than most when it comes to Indian badminton in the last two decades, it is Pullela Gopichand. Ever since he won the All England Open, Gopichand has been at the heart of most good things in Indian badminton.

In the latest edition of the Premier Badminton League (PBL), though, it is another Gopichand who has made a few headlines of her own -- 16-year-old Gayatri.

Daughter of the vastly successful Gopichand, Gayatri is the second-youngest player to feature in this year's PBL.

Part of the Chennai Superstarz team, Gayatri benefited from Scotland's Kirsty Gilmour's (the team's top ranked singles player) absence at the beginning of the tournament, and she could not have asked for a more daunting introduction to the same.

She might be ranked 12th in the junior world rankings but her PBL debut came against world champion PV Sindhu. Talking about the experience, she says, "My first ever match in the tournament was against Sindhu, so I was a little nervous, but as the game went on, I was really excited. I just wanted to win and give my best. Then, I played against Tai Tzu Ying."

Calling Tai her favourite player, she says playing against her remains her best memory from the season. And why not? It was the match against her which made everyone take notice of Gayatri. She stunned all observers by winning the first game against the world no. 2, with her use of drop shots and touch play -- something that Tai herself is known for -- drawing a string of unforced errors from her vastly decorated opponent.

Her play was reminiscent of her father at times, with her usage of the wrist to play the shuttle into empty spaces being a particular standout. She might be lacking in power at this stage but her dexterity is remarkable for someone so inexperienced.

Even as Tai drew on her experience to make a comeback and win the match, Gayatri says she was pleasantly surprised by her performance. "I didn't expect it at all. I couldn't believe that I won the first game. I could match her strokes in that opening game and could play the way I wanted to as I executed my strokes well."

Inspired by her father's play, Gayatri started playing the sport herself as a six-year-old. "After I started playing, I started winning tournaments in a few years. That is when I realized that I was good at this sport." She then made the decision to pursue the sport professionally.

Playing against players that are vastly more experienced and regulars on the World Tour in the PBL, Gayatri says that the coaches and senior players' advice before the season was "just give your best and enjoy on court. Do not take pressure."

It is an advice she seems to have taken to heart as her love for the sport is evident when you watch her play. Speaking of her takeaways from her maiden season, she says, "I think playing against them [Sindhu and Tai] helped me a lot. This was the first time that I was facing players of such a high quality at this stage of my life. I could actually see how they play their strokes and move on court and their attitude and body language on court. So I could learn from all those things."

While her father's achievements as a coach are plenty, Gayatri says that her mother, P.V.V Lakshmi, is also an invaluable source of support for her, having been a national-level player herself. "My mother does give me advice sometimes. She sits behind me when I practice but she's always tense," she says.

Even though she has failed to win any of the four matches she has played this season, three of those have come against players ranked in the top 15 in the world rankings. For perspective, she's 198th in the senior rankings. "The senior players are brainier as they have a lot of experience. They know what they want to do at all times and that is the biggest difference," she says. "I am 16-years old. So the players I am facing here are much more stronger than me, which is why they move faster on court. So physical strength is something that I want to improve on."

Gayatri has had a fair bit of success on the junior circuit but it has not always been a smooth ride for her, with her being at the centre of selection controversies in the past. While her selection for the 2017 junior World Championships was questioned by a fellow junior player's grandmother, her selection for the 2018 Asian Games also drew the ire of veteran doubles player Aparna Balan.

The teenager has chosen to answer those questions in the best possible way, by her displays on the court and her performances in the PBL this year have proved her mettle.

She has set herself specific goals for this year. "I just want to play at the international level and do well in challenge-level tournaments so that I can play more on the World Tour on the senior circuit," she says.

Finally, when asked if the Gopichand name brings added pressure, she answers with an emphatic, "No, it doesn't." Going by her growth on court, it's difficult to argue against that.