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'Saina made me a much better coach'

Fernando Rivas and Carolina Marin during the Rio Olympics final. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

This piece of tribute from an unlikely quarter could probably catch Saina Nehwal unawares. Fernando Rivas, Carolina Marin's coach, is more than willing to part with some measure of credit to the Indian player for transforming him from a great coach to an outstanding one.

Intriguing as it may sound, Rivas nods with conviction. "We had been trying to beat Saina for a while but Marin just couldn't find a way around her. That gave me a lot of motivation because I had analysed Saina very well," he says. "It taught me a lot in terms of questioning my methods both in preparation and analysis with Marin and helped me develop my coaching skills. It was a turning point in my career. Saina made me a much better coach than I ever was."

Currently, Saina holds a 4-3 head-to-head record against the Spaniard, her last win against the Rio Olympics gold medallist coming at the Dubai World Super Series Finals in December 2015. Marin, though, beat her at the Indonesia Open in June 2016.

"Saina's strokes under pressure are probably the best in the circuit."

Spanish badminton's turnaround from a non-force to a world-beater over the past decade, eroding China's stranglehold over the sport, revolves around this one man -- Rivas. Admittedly far from a good player in his day, new and innovative coaching methods piqued his interest like little else did. A degree in sports science, he reckoned, could make for a decent starting point, following which he travelled extensively for close to five years under a postgraduate research programme, learning new languages -- he is proficient in eight of them -- and opening up his horizons to the sport methodologies used in different countries.

Armed with knowledge and a vision for change, Rivas returned to Spain. But Spain wasn't ready for him.

Spain religiously conformed to the Chinese style of badminton before Rivas entered the coaching scene. A deviation was considered near-sacrilege. "I will never criticize Chinese methods since they've been the badminton powerhouse and still are," he says. "But in my opinion, if we choose to copy, a second place is the best we can get. A copy can, after all, never be better than the original. Our goal was to be first."

A measure of distrust among players regarding Rivas' ideas also stemmed from his lack of any remarkable successes as a player. "It's very difficult when you haven't been a good player to become a coach and say, 'OK, this is what we're going to do.' If you're a good player, you can only be a good coach if you question your own methods. It happens with most successful players. They often train their students according to what worked for them," he says. "Nothing worked with me, so that probably helped me discover new paths as a coach."

He first met Marin, a trained flamenco dancer, when she was 13. What struck Rivas instantly was her attacking style, quickness on the feet and powerful character. "She had a control over the tempo of the game in a way that I had never seen in a player of such a young age. In my head, I could see that with proper training she could be turned into a champion. So we did," he says.

Rivas, who is ambidextrous, himself made up for the lack of training partners for the left-handed Marin in the beginning. Once Marin began winning medals in her junior years, the rigid tennis minds in Spain turned more receptive to Rivas' ideas, accepting the fundamentals behind the results.

"If you look at traditional ways of coaching, there's no room for innovation and research," he says. "'This is what we have done for 20 years, we've won 20 times so why should we change?' Since we were bad in the sport, with no great results or medals, it offered me an opportunity to carve a different path, a different approach. I don't coach Marin the way I coach other players. It doesn't mean they don't succeed. They don't succeed as much as Marin because she's outstanding."

Rivas laughs at the suggestion of a rivalry between Marin and PV Sindhu -- it's a question he has been asked a gazillion times since the Olympics. "The rivalry is a creation of the media. They're good friends," he says. "In the Olympic quarters, I told my team to start analysing Sindhu's matches because she was in great shape and [I felt] would reach the final. Now, the Rio Games is in the past and that won't help them evolve. They're on-court opponents and that will always be there."

Unlike Gopichand, a hands-on coach who is as involved in a match as the player, Rivas prefers to play it differently. He lets Marin, for instance, take her own on-court decisions and is scarcely seeing relaying instructions during a match. "It's a sign that we are having proper daily training sessions," he says. "I like to talk when things are going good. I think it's important for players to feel self-sufficient and be by themselves. I don't want Marin or the other players to be dependent on me. That would be a mistake. Maybe I won't be around one day, so that wouldn't be very responsible. So the less I'm needed, the better I feel."

He says both of India's top two female players -- Sindhu and Saina -- are fuelled by a similar hunger for success. "Both are very gritty players, they really want to win and both have different styles of attacking play," he says. "Saina needs to play more around the court and her strokes under pressure are probably the best in the circuit. It's very difficult to score against her. Sindhu, on the other hand, has some very good steep smashes, cross smashes, a huge array of attacking strokes and a great defence."

Marin's screams after every point may be viewed as excessive by many, but coach Rivas explains that it's more a way for the world no. 2 to psyche herself and channel her inner energy. But there's a flip side to a vocal self, he says, one that has been reined in, in Marin's case. "The negative side is when you're nervous -- that's also an emotion -- but we've managed to control that," he says. "Holding your emotions in is never a good idea. But you need to listen to your positive emotions and hide your negative ones. It's easy to say but difficult to execute, especially if you're tired, trailing, nervous or a match point down. That's one area we have worked at very meticulously for Marin in training."

A sense of implicit trust, Rivas adds, is the foundation of his 10-year-long relationship with Marin. For half the duration, it was more of a father-daughter bond. Now, with the 23-year-old metamorphosing from a wary teen to a confident player, it's more professional. The connect, though, still runs deep. "From a young teenager, she's now a young woman, having evolved through different phases. She trusts me completely," says Rivas. "When I say no, it's a no. There's nothing to talk about. I tend to be democratic and I think it's good for them to sometimes make mistakes and learn from them."

The ultimate sporting glory having come Marin's way at 23, the obvious question is about finding motivation for the future. "She's emotional," Rivas says. "For a moment, imagine you're Marin. Now if I were to tell you, 'Okay, you've won an Olympic gold, but that's in the past. When I retire I want you to be the best player in the history of the sport, so even when I die nobody has surpassed you. Works?'"

He says it is about finding a dream one can stick to even when one is tired in practice or when things go wrong. "In fact, things have gone wrong for us in some major titles, but that doesn't mean our method or approach is wrong," he says. "It just shows that others are also doing it right. And that's what I tell Marin. Coaches have to develop much faster than players to be able to take them out of their comfort zone."

A historic Olympic gold medal -- a first for Spain in badminton -- won, the man behind the method and the madness isn't willing to gloat just yet over his triumph. At 39, he has already wrapped up two decades in coaching. He wants to turn winning into a habit and get the next rung of Spanish players cracking. Rivas says all the setbacks that he encountered in his effort to break perceptions, forge new paths and choose novelty over tradition proved rewarding. They gave him the will to hold out a little longer and see his fight for a change through.

"Till not too long ago, I was a man thought to be talking nonsense," he says, with a hint of vindication.