As Indians we’ve always identified with the All England Championships. And even now as a coach when I look back, my triumph in 2001 keeps coming back. It’s a defining moment and Indians always looked at the tournament as something huge and compared it to Wimbledon. Prakash sir’s win in 1980 has always been an inspiration for me growing up and the atmosphere in Birmingham is special.
I had no expectations going into the tournament in 2001. I had a very bad experience during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. 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. The lesson learnt at Olympics was so harsh that it was a deliberate ploy so as to avoid disappointment. I prepared very well, but had no expectations.
Pullela Gopichand after winning the All England Badminton Championships in Birmingham. (Getty Images)
More challenging than the tournament was the travel. We travelled to Bangalore then to Mumbai and to Delhi, where we collected our visas, then onward to Bandar-e Abbas, Frankfurt and Birmingham late on a Tuesday. The tournament was a 64-player draw then and I landed on the court on Wednesday with no practice – and we had to play two matches a day! Those were the days of paper draws, unlike draws on Internet now. I was completely knackered after playing matches back to back without rest or respite on Wednesday and Thursday.
My first breathing space was on Friday morning. Then again I was so tired and terribly jet-lagged. But fortunately for me, I got into a routine – it was just a small set up then — of play, eat, sleep and play again by then because two key days were coming up on Saturday and Sunday.
The semifinal against Peter Gade was very important. I took it as a challenge because he had defeated me quite a few times before All England. I prepared really well and had my plans in place for him. I was very satisfied with the manner in which I executed my plans. Usually, you have your chances, but on that day I grabbed my chances. Even though both games went to deuce (Gopi won 17-14, 17-15), I was totally satisfied with the way I pulled it off.
Going into the final I was confident that I could outlast Chen Hong (Gopi won 15-12, 15-6). My body was aching a lot and my knee, thanks to the three surgeries, was hurting. The surface at All-England then was concrete. I was frequently bathing in ice and recovery was the most important thing. And to think of it, there were no physio or support staff. But the entire Indian team was there to support me. After the final, it was more a realisation that the ordeal of pain is over than the joy of victory. I hope another Indian wins the All England soon.
I generally don’t read the newspapers and there were no mobile phones then. Also it was late on Sunday night in India, so it took time to sink in. But the moment I landed in India I knew it was a big deal.