Saina Nehwal is still battling the effects of a debilitating knee injury and at 27 is the oldest among the Top-20 in the world. At the Glasgow World Championships, Indian badminton’s trailblazer will be an underdog but writing her off will be naive. Indian Express argues why Nehwal remains a force.
Saina Nehwal is about to embark on yet another round of beat ’em ups. Her buddy of many years, Parupalli Kashyap, is gloating he’s won every single turn of Mortal Kombat, whenever Saina drops by in Hyderabad and the group of friends hit the consoles at one of the guys’ homes. It’s an unchanged routine – a day before she flies out for tournaments from her home city, arriving from her training base Bangalore. No amount of losses have taken the edge off Saina’s fierce fervour to win this fighting game some day. On the eve of heading out to the World Championships, that competitive buzz is stinging the air again. “She wants that ‘champion’ thing now,” says Kashyap, though he isn’t talking of Mortal Kombat here. He meant in good ol’ badminton.
Two years ago, the monkey was off her back – Saina had ended a frustrating run of four quarterfinal losses at the World Championships, to clinch a silver behind Carolina Marin at Jakarta. Earlier in the season, she had medalled at the All England – a silver again behind the Spaniard. “If she had won those titles in 2015, it would’ve been different. I don’t see her simply competing, saying I’ve achieved all that I could. Probably, the burden of making the podium at the big events is off, but she badly wants those medals again. She wants the ‘champion’ thing now,” Kashyap repeats. “She’s super-duper hungry for title wins.”
Saina is far away from the spotlight that will obsessively follow the largest Indian contingent at the World Championships at Glasgow starting Monday. Saina, at 27 the oldest amongst the world’s current Top 20, plays a sport that isn’t sympathetic to those with aging limbs and dimming reflexes. Modern badminton is a young woman’s sport, at the Worlds every shuttler in the Top 10 is below 25.
The Haryanvi from Hyderabad had hobbled off the Rio Olympics – even as PV Sindhu stunningly and speedily took her spot on the pedestal. It’s the first agonising anniversary of the ACL trouble – a neat, dispassionate acronym for her knee having chipped into two. Her recent results too haven’t been encouraging. A Tier 3 title in Malaysia and many fragmented failures have probably been worse for her confidence than those bodily bruises. There aren’t many who are expecting miracles from the World No 15 – yes, the ranking’s spilled out of the hallowed Top 10 as well.
But because it’s Saina – none’s writing her off either. Even the clinical skeptics – who see waves and troughs coming from a mile, and suspect an imminent down-slide here based on her form and fitness – paint pictures of enthusiastic epilogues to Saina’s career, and how it can’t be resurrected. Kashyap had no doubts though. “When she returned from surgery to play in Macau, China and Hong Kong, I knew she’s going to come back and told her we were happy she’s playing again,” Kashyap recalls the November of last year. Saina hadn’t been content though. “Her very first tournament – she was hoping to win the title already!”
A one-act ‘comeback’ script though doesn’t make for the most engaging drama. Even Saina’s sporting hero Roger Federer took five years to regain his Grand Slam winning prowess. 2017 has seen him pick two Slam titles. The year has also witnessed the return of Rafael Nadal to World No 1. Saina picked up a racquet in Hissar where she was called Steffi Saina as a child. She would turn a Federer faithful as soon as he’d won Wimbledon in 2003. It’s the Federer-Nadal narratives that the massive tennis fan will routinely dig into for inspiration, though opinion is divided over how she ought to go about her comeback.
Her inner circle believes she will amp up what she’s been doing these last few years with a tweak here and an upgrade there. And there are others who reckon it’s time for an overhaul. No one’s quite rushing to call time on her career though – and the two F-words – Federer and fighter, keep popping up in conversations, summing up Saina ahead of a World Championship, where she’s firmly an underdog.
At some point in their three-year-long journey as coach, Vimal found the right subject for small-talk with Saina. The two threadbared tennis and talked a lot about Federer, an athlete they both love. It was while watching Federer’s backhand slice having morphed into a whipping weapon, that Vimal had realised that Nehwal 2.0 was going to need similar tweaks. What had been a defensive shot was turned into an attacking kill. The Swiss legend, by driving through the backhand, would cut down on the rallies, thus putting less strain on his back and knee.
“Earlier Federer used to mistime it, now he has winners under pressure on that backhand. Saina too needs to add variations to her strokes. It’s not so much of learning a new stroke, as shot-making from different positions,” Vimal says. In Australia, Saina’s last outing, she had been guilty of returning to mindless attacking as her fall-back mode, even when she had varied choices of shots at her disposal. The plan was to mix the deceptive clears with drops and smashes but she would keep switching to her favourite hyper-attacking template. The tactical bungle would be instrumental in denying her the chance to defend her title Down Under. “From Federer she can also learn how to remain focussed and wriggle out of tough situations. Her game is more like Nadal’s, but Federer is what we need to follow on picking which tournaments to play and when to take a break, and finally not get bogged down by rankings,” the coach adds.
Saina isn’t likely to jaunt off to Nilgiris like Federer went skiing in the Swiss Alps. However, the tennis legend’s shortened clay season and smart breaks are pointers that Saina’s team will riff off from. The fitness and intensity – just enough – that Federer maintained in those strategic breaks, is what legends across the world are attempting to figure out.
“It’s not always about working hard, but working smart. We were all saying Federer’s career is over, but look how he’s back,” says Heath Matthews who worked with Saina in the months post her surgery. “I can’t prescribe heavy workloads to her because muscle tissues have to heal. Her travelling physio Aravind Nigam too has struck a balance where we push her to the absolute bare minimum to take her to 100 percent. Once she reaches that point, not one repetition extra,” he says. While shuttle legends Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan will be closely watched to see if they can use the Roger code to stretch their careers upto Tokyo 2020, in women’s singles, Saina is the most likely to dip into the Federer formula.
The depths of her dark days will be consigned to history the moment Saina strikes a title, though those close to her are simply happy to see where she is a year after the Rio catastrophe. “Can’t tell you how much it had hurt her,” Kashyap remembers, though he himself had realised three months before the Games that his own Olympics pursuit was over owing to a spate of injuries. “At least I had time to make peace with what had happened and tell myself inane stuff like ‘it’s not written for you.” In Saina’s case, two weeks before the Olympics, the pain started. It was horrible and she would cry on the days when it didn’t go down. Then she desperately took the cortisone injection and hoped that somehow the pain would subside.
“Her pain threshold was crazy, because the doctor there was shocked and asked how the hell did she even step on court, when a piece of the bone was pricking her every second,” he recalls. “She expected till the last day that she would be able to play, but ..” Her leg had been in tumult. Lunging on the knee a 100 times a day in practice typically leads to a pull on the bone. The bone in self-preservation strengthens itself – except in Saina’s case it grew more than it should have and literally chipped off inside the knee. “People casually said she was under pressure and she choked. It was a torrid time,” Kashyap recalls. Fitness levels in badminton have gone through the roof, matches are routinely 1 hour-long and the taxing schedule means no one’s immune to walking wounded on shuttle courts in women’s singles.
Saina was uncharacteristically not prone to injury in her first few years – leading to 10 Super Series titles and medals at every major. The entire Chinese pack too was felled by injuries in Olympics year. Carolina Marin, Xuerui Li, Ratchanok have all faced injury troubles – most others play with both knees strapped at all times. Nehwal had played the 2015 World Championship finals with a groin strain – another painful episode, though Heath Matthews has never heard her reel off an excuse of injury after a loss.
“For a professional athlete, Olympics is the pinnacle and Saina had been World No 1 in between the two Games, and was looking forward to Rio. She tried to play through it, but it came as a big blow. But there’s nothing she loves more than badminton, and though her character has been tested this last one year and she’s lost close matches to players she can’t tangibly understand how, and kept her belief through a long rehab, there’s not a doubt that she’s on the cusp of a good year now,” Matthews says.
Some unconventional resistance work has gone into improving her speed, which will paper over the age-obstacle that’ll get thrown at her often. “27 is not old, and I’m not considering her age at all. She’s moving much better now, and we are going to take her speed to a level where she puts her younger opponents under time pressure,” he adds.
Saina somewhat specialised in rattling her opponents even when she first entered the circuit at 16 – though her chosen weapon was power. It’s the speed that they plan to prop up now. Saina’s team is keen that she doesn’t alter her game drastically to compensate for her surgery, and she’s begun pushing her knee as confidence has returned to her lunging stride. While Vimal insists that her tactics and shot selection leave much to be desired – the last year has indeed been a learning curve in dealing with the reality that it’s not easy to return and resume winning like before. With much grieving of losses, he insists that Saina realised she’s far away from getting to the top again, though the enjoyment she derived from court sessions remained undiminished.
Viren Rasquinha, whose OGQ have backed her all these years, was in Bangalore in Saina’s last week of training. Though he’s noticed the beginnings of an ability to switch on-switch off – rare for the intense athlete who’s always had to be pulled back from over-training – he was pleased with the familiar Saina sight. “After a 3-hour-long session, everyone was bending down exhausted, hands on hips. She walked up to Vimal Sir and asked ‘What’s next?’”
One key reason why Saina’s team believes she’s still some time away from entirely reinventing her game is because she is yet to see the results of playing with 100 percent fitness. They reckon she’s been operating at 80 per cent, and once she hits the high notes, she’ll be able to regain her lost form. Saina herself is believed to still feel the rush when she moves freely and when she can train without getting tired, though the losses have hurt.
“If you reach peak fitness and still the game’s not working for you, then we can start thinking of reinventing,” says a key member of her support staff. Saina needs to learn a couple of difficult don’ts – don’t worry about rankings, don’t peak for smaller tournaments. “Some people find it tough to hold back. But she’s smart enough to learn this eventually,” Kashyap says.
There’s a sneaking feeling amongst those detached from her immediate circle that she’s looking for luck, hoping something external conspires to make things work again. “She needs a couple of changes to her team. What she’s doing isn’t working entirely. Even their best intention might not prove good enough,” says a former player, who adds that though motivation is never a problem with her, the small details are not in place to reach the top of the world again. Some others believe that the time is right for her to go easy on herself. “She needs to chill a bit, tweak a few things, but stop comparing her to herself of some years ago,” says former international Aparna Popat.
“She has nothing to prove to anyone. Someone needs to tell her that nobody can take away what she’s achieved and she will always be considered the path-breaker. What we now want to see is Saina enjoying herself on court. She’s taken the burden for 10 years, now if she can play freely, she’ll win much more,” she says. There’s those that believe that anything from now is a bonus and Saina will never be able to win solely on ‘fitness’ again, hence the need to revamp her game like Federer, and then there’s others who feel that urgency is important in addressing her fitness program, because it’s only going to get tougher from here. For every
Federer dream run, there’s the Usain Bolt stumble for those pushing their luck. There’s consensus that Saina doesn’t need to charge into all 12 Super Series with the intent of winning them all and should pace herself for the big titles. No one spoken to for this story, expressed a single doubt that Saina ever lacks in commitment when in training or in a match. “It’s easy for all of us to tell her. But Saina hates losing and wants to play well at all times. I dont want to change that mentality. Though I don’t want her to have major ambitions for the next 6 months, she should know she can win titles and beat anybody,” Vimal says. Some combats are set up for sporting immortals.