MUMBAI (Reuters) - India stands on the brink of a badminton revolution but the sport's foundations need to be strengthened if the country hopes to emulate mighty neighbours China, national coach Pullela Gopichand has told Reuters.
China has been the dominant force in badminton for decades but after sweeping all five titles at the 2012 London Olympics, last year's Rio Games proved far less productive for the Asian super power as other nations sought to take advantage.
They bagged the men's singles and doubles titles but only added a solitary bronze to that tally as India's Pusarla Sindhu took silver in the women's singles, losing out to Spain's Carolina Marin in one of three finals without Chinese players.
Sindhu's silver followed Saina Nehwal's bronze in London for success-starved India, but Kidambi Srikanth's three consecutive Super Series finals appearances has given badminton a shot in the arm in the world's second-most populous country.
"For the number of people who have taken up playing the sport, I will say yes," Gopichand said when asked if India was on the verge of a badminton revolution. "And hopefully these performances are more consistent.
"It's not only my academy, all academies across the country are running full. There are many, many parents who want their kids to give up everything and concentrate on badminton."
Srikanth lost to compatriot B. Sai Praneeth in the final in Singapore before going on to win in Indonesia and Australia, where he beat Chinese Olympic and world champion Chen Long.
In Indonesia, HS Prannoy also shone as he defeated three-times Olympic silver medallist Lee Chong Wei and China's Chen in consecutive rounds before losing in the semi-finals.
"China as a dominant force has been challenged, both in the men's and women's. We have been responsible for it," beamed Gopichand when asked if China's hegemony was over.
"But I think the world championships, the Olympics are the big championships and medals which are critical. When we can beat them at those big events then I feel we can say that."
All three men's players, Nehwal and Sindhu are products of the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, where the former All England champion credits a focus on fitness for the success and said many years of hard work was finally bearing fruit.
"If we look at the performances in the last few years it has been good," the 43-year-old said. "We have been able to work better as a unit and all players have been peaking at the right time.
"The fitness levels are higher... we were not fit enough to play at the highest level. Technically, we have been good for a long time but in fitness levels, we were lacking.
"At grassroots level, badminton was going in a certain direction but to beat them (China) we needed to play in a different style. The kind of badminton we were playing was not in tune with what was needed at the highest level."
India now boasts a larger pool of players poised to succeed at the highest level but Gopichand is not resting on his laurels, yearning for a more robust system and better coaching.
Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo, best known for guiding countryman Taufik Hidayat to Olympic gold in 2004, has been added to India's coaching staff, which Gopichand says has given him more time to focus on the needs of players individually.
"Although I am very happy and very satisfied with the performances, I think for us to be sustainable, for us to call ourselves a superpower in badminton there is still a lot of work which needs to be done structurally," he said.
"I think for the next generation to come up, we need to put a system in place which actually identifies and nurtures talent. We have grown exponentially but there is lot more which needs to be done.
"It's quite hard to push a rock up the mountain but if you slip then it slips back very fast."
The stellar results have earned Gopichand the moniker of 'Super Coach', hardly surprising considering the amount of work he continues to put in at his academy.
"I think it's a huge responsibility... a coach's job is tough and in India it is even tougher," Gopichand added.
"It's been 13 years, regular, disciplined work ethic and very little time off to do anything else. And to work 12-14 hours on most days, stressful days. If I were to call that sacrifice, it is.
"But honestly I have loved each part of the journey and never felt it was a sacrifice."
(Editing by John O'Brien)