Former Indian badminton star and All England Open champion Pullela Gopichand has encountered Chinese legend Lin Dan both as a coach and a competitor and believes he had all the answers to handle the Chinese star’s bag of tricks.
Lin Dan, a two-time Olympic champion and five-time World Champion retired from playing last month after winning a whopping 666 singles matches over his 20-year-long career, in which he managed to win every major title.
Pullela Gopichand was at the dusk of his career when Lin Dan was emerging as a star and the two clashed only three times on-court before the Indian shuttler retired in 2002.
Even though Gopichand led 2-1 in head-to-head against Lin Dan, the elder man could not stop admiring the traits Lin Dan demonstrated from a very young age.
“When I played him for the first time, he was much younger, and like all other Chinese players of those times, he was extremely fast and powerful,” Pullela Gopichand told Firstpost.
Though Lin Dan had upstaged Gopichand over three games (5-7, 1-7, 6-8) in their first meeting at the 2001 Singapore Open - when the seven-point format was prevalent - Gopichand drew level at the 2002 Japan Open, winning 7-3, 3-7, 7-5.
Their third and last meeting took place at the 2002 Singapore Open. This time the experienced Gopichand upstaged Lin Dan in straight games (15-4, 15-2) in the 15-point format.
“For me, the advantage was that I was very deceptive,” Gopichand said.
“So, although I lost to him once in a seven-point format in a close match, I think I really dominated him in our next matches. He had no clue what was happening, thanks to my deception," Gopichand added.
Decoding Lin Dan
The second round of the Gopichand-Lin Dan rivalry began when the former moved into coaching, where he holds the role of Chief National Coach and led the India badminton team at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Gopichand’s deep insight into Lin Dan’s game helped his wards run the Chinese close. Lin Dan had a weak backhand and Gopichand knew how to exploit that.
Although Parupalli Kashyap never got past Lin Dan in three meetings, Kidambi Srikanth had a 2-3 win-loss record against the Chinese superstar. With a 3-2 win-loss record against Lin Dan, HS Prannoy was the best.
“We decided to hit across him. He would retrieve, no doubt, but when his defence cracked, it cracked,” Gopichand explained.
“We had some decent success as most of our players beat him at some point. In the last three-four years, Lin Dan was nowhere near his best; he was just hanging on.
“His best was perhaps before 2015," added Gopichand.
Rebuilding from scratch
Gopichand, however, was quick to acknowledge the massive transformation that Lin Dan had undergone in the 2000s. It was this metamorphosis that made him ‘Super Dan’.
Taking a leaf out of Jwala Gutta’s assessment of the Chinese legend, Gopichand praised Lin Dan’s strong mentality to move away from the Chinese mould and develop his own playing style as years progressed.
“He was a typically quick Chinese player, but he realised that he was getting caught with a particular style of game. So, he adapted wonderfully,” Gopichand said.
“He totally turned his game around to become a player who could control his attack and had a very good defence. He stood out with his all-round game,” observed Gopichand.