The last time Saina Nehwal lost in Round 1 of a tournament was 30 months ago – the Singapore Super Series of 2014. It had been a typically tiring battle skimming the hour-mark where she was dragged into the third by a pugnacious Japanese.
On Wednesday — returning from surgery-and-rehab where a chipped bone shard in her knee that was floating between tissue-mass even as she attempted to stay afloat at the Rio Olymics was fixed — Nehwal almost touched the 60-minute mark, happy simply to be back in the competitive mix. She lost 16-21, 21-19, 14-21 to Thailand’s ardent tryer Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, but showed intent when dragging the match into the decider.
“so happy to b playing again at the highest level (sic)” she would tweet later, the pumped fist emojis trailing after the words.
Nehwal is World No 6 currently, in a season in which she endured a devastating first-stage exit in the pools from the Rio Games. At 26, she has medals at almost every event including the Olympics and World Championships, though there are boxes to check – individual medal at Asian Games and the emotive All England. The injury wasn’t the easiest to shrug off, needing surgery, and her contemporaries from China have all retired post Rio.
At 2-9 in the second and a set down (she plateaued at 16-all losing 21-16), in Fuzhou, China, Nehwal, started plotting her comeback. She would level at 13-all in the mid-set, and take the finishing points to take the match into the third. The Indian was in it till 10-11 at break, but the rustiness showed up as her fight would taper off before the final push. Yet this wasn’t someone with her career-end in sights.
“I am feeling good about my fitness level and it will only get better for me from here. I am quite confident of getting back to my best,” she said after the match. “This was my first tournament since Rio Olympics and it felt really good to be back. I was playing after a gap of two and half months after the surgery. Even though I lost early I am quite satisfied with the way I played and gave a tough fight playing against a top player.”
Consistency has been the hallmark of Nehwal’s game in her early career – this is only her fourth first-round loss since her breakthrough year of 2010. And injuries – though impeding her progress and setting her back – have hardly dented her enthusiasm.
“As coach I’m happy how she goes about her training sessions,” Vimal Kumar said, adding how her chatty exuberance right after surgery had reassured him that this wasn’t the closing chapter. “Before coming to Bangalore she called and said we’ll do this in training and we’ll try that. I knew then she’s ready to start. She’s probably 60 per cent there, but I’m happy with her recovery.”
The long match in itself dispelled a few fears, though a couple of long rallies towards the end had brought on exhaustion – which was expected after the long layoff. “She’s still short of strength and endurance,” he said. Nehwal’s had just hour long sessions daily on court in the lead-up, focussing on fitness instead. Though Heath Mathews oversaw her rehab, physio Arvind Nigam is travelling with her to China.
“We’re looking to help her regain her movements. Once she starts moving, strokes will come back. The main thing for me was she wanted to play. She was missing competition,” Kumar adds.
Had she persisted without surgery, things would’ve gotten trickier. But given the ligaments around the cracked bone were strong, the problem was surgically fixed. It meant muscle mass would come down because of no activity, but that wasn’t without remedy. Only the wound needed to heal. The disappointment she tided over quite maturely.
The day she exited the Olympics was easily the worst days of Kumar’s life.
“Or of my coaching career at the least. It’s tough when you know how well your athlete has prepared. We thought it was inflammation, but the bone had cracked. She was helpless and only she knew what she was going through. It was miserable,” he recalls. The coach though has instructed her to move forward with no expectations.
“We’ll look at Jan – Feb, so right now she wants to play without looking at the results. She’s mentally prepared to fight it out,” he affirms.
While the bounty is her’s to hunt – take another shy at the world title next year, the Asiad medal and the All England as early at March next year, Kumar reckons she still could give herself another 3-4 years. “If fitness allows, then 3-4 years for sure. She has to train smart, and listen to her body in how much to train. Be realistic I’ve told her, no need to think of the next Olympics right now,” he says.
It was at the China Open last year that another injury the Achilles had flared up – Nehwal playing both the World Championships final and the China Open final battling tendonitis. “She came back well from that, though 2016 has been up and down.”
But this is Saina Nehwal. Neither uncharacteristic Round 1 exits nor predictable end-of-career prophecies will puncture her confidence. She likes competing way too much. And keeping score. Porntip trails 2-9 after this one.