Boxing has its knockouts, in badminton, they’re literally getting kneed-out. The rap on the patella of the knee has been the recurrent thudding beat in Saina Nehwal’s career, rooting her to reality. But for the second time in her career, she watched the knee unravel from across the net. Chinese Wang Xin had winced in pain at the London Olympics – scrambling into a tangle chasing the shuttle, a snap that ended her career, with the bronze medal going to Nehwal.
On Sunday at the Istora in Jakarta, Carolina Marin went down on an awkwardly landing right knee. Commentators predicted 7-8 months out from the game in an Olympic qualification year for the defending champ, though accurate scan reports are awaited.
The Spanish three-time World Champion and Olympic holder walked away in tears — staring at an imminent enforced break to mend the right knee after she went for an ambitious around-the-head shot in her far backhand corner, with the joint bearing the brunt of a lateral jump and the bouncing feet.
Because they push the limits of agility so frequently, sometimes shuttlers forget they are tendons-and-muscles-and-bones, not rubber-bands. Marin was in the middle of a rampaging run of play, going for an audacious around-the-head, retrieving Nehwal’s clear to her backhand with an arching body, when she landed unbalanced and awkwardly at 9-2 in the opening set. A moment before Marin went down, Nehwal had sent her scurrying for a clear to her stretched forehand on the other flank, so her momentum was horizontal, along the breadth of the court.
Marin would stun Nehwal taking the next point for 10-3 with an adrenaline-fuelled body-attack charging the net, but knew by then that the knee had given way and the tears didn’t stop rolling as Nehwal’s drop winner to the forecourt for 10-4 raised fears of a long lay-off.
Women’s singles is replete with knees gone bad, though Indians will vividly remember Wang Xin, who limped off in pain at the London Games giving them the first Olympic badminton medal. But in that qualification cycle, 2010 World Champion Wang Lin, on a comeback trail from her ACL injury, aggravated her left knee and was stretchered to the hospital. This was after missing seven months when her ranking was in freefall to World No. 103, suffering a career-threatening knee injury in Round 1 of the China Masters immediately after her world title. She retired at 24 and missed the Olympics.
While Xin’s knee gave way in London, 2012 Olympic champion Li Xuerui first suffered knee trouble at age 22 in 2013 and tore her lateral meniscus at the Rio Games where she went down to Marin in the semis and was no match for Nozomi Okuhara in the bronze play-off. What she suspected to be a sprained knee had been far worse, and has taken her close to two years to return from. Xuerui is 27.
Same time as Saina first complained of acute pain in her knees at the 2015 China Open (she lost the final that day to Xuerui), Asiad champ and fellow Chinese Wang Shixian – who Xuerui outlasted in the semis – needed doctors to straighten her knee on court. She’d retire at 26, adding to the list of Chinese washed out by the brutal pace of the game they play, while winning in short stints. Diagnosis: bad knee.
The game is supremely demanding on shuttlers with its lateral movements and explosive vertical bursts. One of the advantages for PV Sindhu — at 5’11” — has been her natural reach (though she’s worked hard on her agility), that eases the impact on the knees.
Thai world champ at 17, Ratchanok Intanon, lives in constant fear of a knee injury relapse, that took her out for six months in 2017 after first suffering at the Rio Olympics. Knee troubles typically lead to over-compensating — spiralling into injuries of the other knee, or ankle.
Korean Sung Ji Hyun travels with strapped knees, while Okuhara had a build-up of fluid in the joint that left her knee swollen two months after her World title in 2017. In fact, the knee played truant on her quite early in her career in 2013.
Saina, who’s had her share of knee woes, said, “It’s not good to see at all. To see something like this happen on court is very painful. I know how it is mentally. I was very upset when it happened to me because it was just before the Olympics and I was crying like anything. Finally sport is like that, it’s a cruel thing for all players. We try to keep ourselves as fit as we can, but sometimes you can’t control conditions,” she said.
“It took me a lot of time because I came out of surgery and had to correct my movements. Everything was going here and there, so it was tough. But many players recover faster. Carolina is the fittest and strongest, and has the best team with her, so I hope she comes back soon. I hope it’s nothing major because it’s very important year for her too,” she added.