Gopichand urges caution ahead of planned July 1 restart

With training resuming in parts of the world, players like Chirag Shetty are getting restless. YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images

Chirag Shetty can barely get through a few scrolls of his Instagram feed these days without chirpy training hashtags leaping at him. Players in Europe and southeast Asian countries are back on court while the Pullela Gopichand academy in Hyderabad, which serves as the national centre for India's elite badminton players including Shetty, remains shut. Given the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Telangana, the academy is now likely to open only on July 1.

"It's hard... to see my friends in other countries...the Danes, Indonesians, Malaysians, and Koreans, all of them, on court, training and posting pictures," says Shetty, who along with doubles partner Satwiksairaj Rankireddy are in sound reckoning for the Tokyo Olympics. "It's sad that we will be the last to resume training but the situation is pretty bad, so this is perhaps the only choice we have."

Opening up the facility and summoning players back to training is a risk national coach Gopichand doesn't want to take as things stand now, he tells ESPN. Earlier, it was to resume on June 1 but Telangana's Covid-19 tally, which recently crossed the 5000-case mark, has pushed it by another month. "At this moment," he says, "every day there is a panic regarding doctors, hospitals and testing so for us to go ahead and say sports will start is tricky. There's only so much you can do, and being too aggressive at this juncture is not that great. In Telangana, the numbers are rising. It's now roughly 200 fresh cases a day. We are in touch with the state government and don't want to take any chances. Realistically, July 1 (is when) we are hoping to re-open."

For both Shetty and Sai Praneeth, the latter currently the country's highest ranked men's singles player, the only training upgrade in recent weeks has been outdoor sprints. "I go for a run inside my housing society," says Praneeth. "Till last month I think I was doing OK because I kept telling myself that players around the world are also just like me, at home away from training. Now, when I see everyone else back on court, even within in India, in the Padukone academy in Bengaluru for instance, it's getting worrying."

If training resumes on July 1, Gopichand expects his elite group of athletes to touch tournament fitness by August 15. "Players could be understandably anxious," he says. "Once we open up, the focus will be just on the elite group and we will stick to a very one on one kind of programme and keep their fitness routine the way it is now at the start. Doubles sparring will take more time to resume. After a while, depending on the tournament schedule and who is playing where, we will probably add them to a certain group to ensure guys going for tournaments get to spar together."

Gopichand, who is also the Telangana Badminton Association secretary, wants to be cautious in the kind of message he sends out to other smaller training centres in the state. "Opening up academies is not solving the problem. It's probably going to just open up another problem. We are seeing the way social distancing is being practiced on the roads... it just doesn't happen, right? If you ask players to follow SOPs, they may be okay with it for the first week or so. That's how the lockdown too was initially, everyone followed it. But beyond a point people are lax. If any of the players end up contracting the virus, there's going to be a lot to answer for. If you open up too many places and if you're responsible for more spread, the whole exercise is useless. We have to look at the scenario, be aware of how things are and just accept it's a bad year."

Some of Gopichand's trainees like HS Prannoy, though are at a locational advantage. Having lived out the lockdown period in his hometown Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, Prannoy is already two weeks into on-court sessions now. He trains at the TOSS academy in the state capital, twice a day, sparring with juniors of a fair level. Even if the Gopichand academy does open up early next month, Prannoy is willing to give it a few more weeks before he makes a trip to Hyderabad. "I write out my own training programme these days and the academy does have at least five junior players of a decent level. Right now, that's all I need to do my movement and endurance drills. At a time, only seven players train at the academy right now so that, on its own, takes care of social distancing."